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Kurt Elling: Recasting Brilliance

Cicily Janus By

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I hope you'll listen for the innovation within our interpretation of this great material rather than look for the cosmic things we often head for. —Kurt Elling
When Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane recorded their one and only album together they created a moment that shaped the art of vocal jazz. An instant of beauty transformed into history. Despite a bias towards the original recording, after listening to Kurt Elling's lustrous and drawn butter version, it was clear the past could be silenced to make way for innovation. This is Elling's first recording since his hit, Night Moves (Blue Note), in 2007. To say that this album is anything but spectacularly in tune with his usual panache would be an understatement. In a live performance, Elling and his group captured the true spirit of this music. Not one to recount the past with his albums, this successfully arrests that weak-at-the-knees feeling throughout that he's known for. It's clear Elling's a master in his element.

The chosen musicians for this album also speak of Elling's panache and good taste. Featured throughout the album, Ernie Watts one of the best saxophonists alive today, lends a vital and confident presence. "What's New" and "Autumn Serenade" highlight his woven and gorgeous blanket of sound. It's beyond fitting, it's hard to imagine anyone else coloring this landscape in a more perfect way. As the mastermind behind the arrangements, Laurence Hobgood refines the art of listening with just the turn of his phrasing. Through candid yet intimate conversation, he's aligned with Elling and leads the group with a rare but essential sense of harmony.

Contributing further is the mix of the album. In most recordings it would be difficult to hear the bass unless they're soloing. This is not the case here. Clark Sommers rings true and honest in tone. The golden color pours a solid foundation to the timber of the group. Ulysses Owens on drums brings an overall emphatic energy. With each splash and well timed counter to the conversations on stage, he only adds to the flow while sitting in that pocket of rhythm that defines a beat rather than imitates one. But there's more here than just a great recording. Elling, considered a legend of vocal jazz, provides the inside scoop as to how this recording came about.

All About Jazz: Where did the idea to recast the Hartman/Coltrane album come from?

Kurt Elling: Some friends of mine at the Chicago Jazz festival invited me to be on a double bill with Joshua Redman. He was going to perform the Africa Brass works. This is considerably more boisterous material. I guess it seemed like a good idea to have a double bill and I immediately asked if I could do more than simply reiterate the material. It was a good place to start but wasn't the most interesting thing that could be done with the material. They were very open to the possibility of me putting my own slant on things. I was working with Jim Gailloreto at the time on arrangements for saxophone, string quartet and voice and that was the actual place we started.

Of course I had Laurence Hobgood to write some new arrangements and this is what grew into this project. It wasn't something I set out with the intent to record. But every time we would perform it beginning with the first time, there were always more promoters who wanted us to play the concert. It became a special project, something we would do on occasion. We finally took it to Monterey and that's when the label got wind of it. By that time we'd spent so much time refining it and writing new arrangements and getting new ideas for things and putting the group together that it seemed like a good idea to record it.

AAJ: How would you say this recording compares to your other ones, not only the strength of it, but as the challenge of completing a project that culminates in a live recording?

KE: We did a lot of the same kinds of preparation we've done with other projects. We have to have everything as organized as it can be. You don't often have a whole lot of money to spend on stuff in jazz whether you're recording live or in a studio performance setting. It was expensive to do this, it's expensive to go into the studio. This is where organization plays a role. You have to be ready for whatever the experience is so you get it as right and you're as efficient as possible so we're able to communicate the music you're there to play. How does it compare? Well, every project is different whether you're in a studio or live. It all takes a lot of energy and focus and brain power so when you get there you're ready to hit it.

AAJ: Is there a certain dynamic that happens with the group that comes across with live recordings more so than the refined studio recordings?

KE: There's a definite live recording crackle to the energy. Having an audience there, and in this case, with only one set to make everything happen means we had to get everything right in one take. In a way, I have an additional little aspect to be proud of because of this. This recording sounds the way it does because that's the way we played it that night and this feels really good. There's a certain excitement to live projects that don't happen in the studio. I'm not sure if I prefer it but if I had unlimited funds I would get to say and do what I prefer. But I'm happy to have this recording out with this kind of quality.

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