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Kurt Elling: The Messenger

Jim Santella By

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Kurt Elling is different. He rants. In the liners, the singer defines the term to mean "improvising both the melody and lyrics simultaneously." With saxophonist Ed Peterson conversin', Elling shouts unrelated words and phrases as they pop into his mind. "Icebergs." "Viruses." "Planets." "Ice cream." Peterson is improvising, Elling is shouting, and he is also crooning traces of melodic lines around and through the conversation. Add piano, bass, and drums to this demonstration, and you have the quirkiness of Kurt Elling in a nutshell.

Comparable to Mark Murphy and Bobby McFerrin, delivering lightning-fast vocalese like Eddie Jefferson or Jon Hendricks, telling stories like Jack Kerouac or Lord Buckley, and influenced by Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, Tony Bennett, Joe Williams, King Pleasure, and Betty Carter, the 29-year-old baritone has continually pushed the envelope since his professional debut in 1994 and his recording debut on Blue Note a year later. The Messenger, his sophomore recording, includes spoken poetry, pretty ballads, scatting, vocalese, two rants, and one funky soul-jazz tune.

The creative-thinking singer gets capable support from muscular pianist and partner Laurence Hobgood, guest tenor saxophonists Ed Peterson and Eddie Johnson, guest singer Cassandra Wilson, bassists Eric Hochberg and Rob Amster, drummers Paul Wertico and Jim Widlowski, and trumpeter Orbert Davis. With Hobgood, Amster, and Wertico, Elling supplies impromptu lyrics on "The Beauty Of All Things" to begin a suite in three movements. Part Two, "The Dance," adds handclaps, tambourine, and a joyful rhythm that could easily supply the backdrop for lines of high-stepping uniformed clog-dancers. The suite reaches its peak when Orbert Davis joins on flugelhorn to blend with the gentle lyrics about "his ironic smile," and "the bell of a shimmering horn," on "Prayer For Mr. Davis."

Cassandra Wilson's deep and lovely contralto voice blends with Elling's on the Zombie's 1967 pop ballad "Time Of The Season." The arrangement incorporates John Coltrane's "Body And Soul", and the two singers work rather well together on it. "Tanya Jean" is Donald Byrd's composition, with lyrical references to Dexter Gordon, Charlie Parker, Herbie Hancock, and Elvin Jones. "It's Just A Thing" is a fascinating tale of friendship whipped out in the language of beat poetry (739 words in four and a half minutes) spun alongside walking bass and ride cymbal.

"Prelude To A Kiss" features the lush tenor saxophone of Eddie Johnson along with a similar ballad treatment from Elling. "Ginger Bread Boy" is Jimmy Heath's up-tempo bebop standard performed with the leader's lightning-fast vocalese. "Nature Boy" and "April In Paris" open the session with scatting, singing, piano and vocal interplay, and rhythmic stability. The title track features Ed Peterson's tenor sax in a setting that pits three beats over two, as he, Elling, and Hobgood work both as ensemble and individually to deliver the message. Ironically, on this final track of the recording, Hobgood adds a quote from the first track, "Nature Boy." The session proves to be well-rounded, a suitable sophomore outing for the unique singer, and a promise that Kurt Elling is indeed different. Highly recommended.


Title: The Messenger | Year Released: 1997 | Record Label: Blue Note Records

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