Voice and imagination in perfect harmony

The singer from Chicago has always been immensely talented but listening to his early recordings now, and fine as they are, they are not a patch on the latest ones. In the last few years either his voice has caught up with his imagination, or perhaps he has reached some other kind of maturity where his voice and imagination have settled into perfect harmony.
Whatever happened, Nightmoves of two years ago marked a new high point for Elling and this disc, his tribute to the classic Impulse! disc made by John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman in 1963, continues that high quality. It’s recorded at the Lincoln Center as part of their American Songbook series – probably the same show that Elling did at the London Jazz Festival last year, although the saxophonist there was Benny Maupin, whereas here it is Ernie Watts.

Weirdly, sometimes the audience seems to be there and at other times it doesn’t, and there is an abrupt break between My One And Only Love and Nancy With The Laughing Face, but maybe that is just on my pre-release review CD. Yes, you are right – the former song is on the Coltrane/Hartman disc, but the latter is not. This is no simple recreation of the John and Johnny disc, although the concert does include all those songs. In addition to the quartet there is a string quartet on some tracks. At the helm of the arrangements is pianist Laurence Hobgood, and he is a crucial factor in the quality of this music – not only a peerless accompanist for a singer but a great soloist and arranger, too.

And so to that voice and that singing. Elling is surely the most intelligent vocalist on the planet today? (The question mark is probably unnecessary but I’m inviting debate here.) Those quiet high notes he hits in Dedicated To You; the breathy, bending phrasing, the ability to suggest a whole (very interesting) chord in a single note by somehow finding just the right overtones; the grittiness in his voice on Nancy which is as close as a singer comes to the saxophone. And the way he sits rhythmically and assuredly at the centre of the cushioning music; vocally he throws his arms wide to embrace the band and the song.

Ernie Watts has always been a personal favourite – like Elling he has those sweet high notes that bring a nurturing grace to a melodic line. And like Elling he can get deep in the groove, too.

Just try Say It (Over And Over Again). First you get the gorgeous Hobgood string quartet intro, then enter a reverie as Elling sings the song. And then Ernie sings just as sweetly and eloquently. It all gets richer and richer in the final chorus and outro. This really is 6 minutes and 32 seconds of jazz heaven.

A lovely, lovely album that sends you back to Coltrane and Hartman and then forward again to Watts and Elling (who sound nothing like them – and that is partly the point). Oh, and the spoken story of the ’63 recording day to the accompaniment of It’s Easy To Remember is lovely too. A man who treasures the music’s history, and is playing a vital role in its present and future.