When recording songs written by other artists, the jazz musician faces a dilemma: how to pay homage to, and show respect for, the composer's vision, while at the same time bringing to the tune a fresh approach and original talent? On his new Blue Note record, Man In The Air, vocalist Kurt Elling walks this tightrope admirably, sometimes astonishingly. This is all the more impressive considering that Elling has not simply recorded songs by John Coltrane, Pat Metheny, Joe Zawinul, and Herbie Hancock in new arrangements, but has written his own lyrics into these previously instrumental works.
While the music on the album is nicely varied, the lyrics maintain a consistent mood, focusing on romance; both of the standard variety ("The More I Have You," "Never My Love," "In The Winelight") and as it overlaps with a search for the transcendent, not only in God but through the experiences of everyday life ("Resolution," "Time To Say Goodbye," "A Secret I"). This is exemplified by the overwhelming version of Coltrane's "Resolution," from A Love Supreme. Few have had the courage to tackle this sacrosanct work even in instrumental form. For Elling to risk desecration (not to mention a pulled tongue muscle!) by adding lyrics to Coltrane's powerful, winding saxophone solo is amazing enough. That he has so perfectly encapsulated Trane's ecstatic, ecumenical quest for the divine in his words, and has sung them with such utter mastery of his instrument, is nearly beyond belief.
Elling's vocal control is absolutely complete, and he is able to convey the emotion of his lyrics without resorting to histrionics. On "Time To Say Goodbye" he captures the melancholy of Zawinul's "A Remark You Made" and translates it into words describing the mixed joy and sadness at letting a lover go on to better things. "Man In The Air" is a highlight, marrying pianist Laurence Hobgood's beguiling tune, with its shifting tempos and moods, to a lyric which apparently refers to Wayne Shorter, whose influence is felt throughout the album. The soaring vocal part added to Metheny's Minuano makes for a winning combination, catchy in a pop way but with wonderfully modulated jazz playing by Hobgood.
In a project this ambitious, it is no surprise that not everything works so well: the rapidly-wearing novelty of the barbershop quartet-like "Uncertainty of the Poet"; the oddly stilted version of the old Association hit "Never My Love"; the near-smooth jazz/R&B of "In The Winelight." Even here, however, any shortcomings are redeemed by the tasteful playing of Elling's trio, aided by vibe phenom Stefon Harris and Jim Gailloretto on soprano sax; "Winelight" in particular is elevated by Harris's excellent solo and trading of fours with Hobgood, who in turn makes every track sparkle with his acoustic and electric piano work. "Resolution" alone is reason enough to check out Man In The Air, but further listening to this lovely album is sure to elicit admiration for Elling's unique vocalese vision.
Personnel: Rob Amster - Bass, Paul Wertico - Drums, Laurence Hobgood - Piano, Stefon Harris - Vibraphone,
Brad Wheeler - Soprano Sax