Thursday, September 03, 2009

Kurt Elling Pays Tribute to Trane and Hartman

Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman
Concord Jazz

It is one of a handful of jazz albums you are likely to find in non-jazz listeners’ collection. John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, the eponymous collaboration between the legendary tenor saxophonist and the jazz vocalist’s jazz vocalist, is simply a masterpiece of romantic balladry. Earlier this year, Kurt Elling paid tribute to the two Johns during the Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series, with special concert performances now preserved on the live CD Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman.

While Elling performs all six tunes from the classic album, he and pianist-collaborator Lawrence Hobgood avoid note-for-note recreations. Where Hartman simply joined Coltrane’s regular working quartet (comprised of the now revered McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, and Jimmy Garrison on piano, drums, and bass, respectively), Elling is backed by Hobgood’s trio and the ETHEL string quartet, with Ernie Watts guesting courageously on tenor saxophone for seven tunes.

Dedicated begins with “All or Nothing at All,” one of five tracks that were not part of the Coltrane-Hartman set, but were covered by the tenor titan’s appropriately named Ballads record, an instrumental session with a similarly romantic vibe. It proves a fine vehicle for Elling, but the most heat comes during Watts’ passionate solo.

Rodgers and Hart’s “It’s Easy to Remember” also comes to the program by way of Coltrane’s Ballads, but Elling’s interpretation takes it in a completely new direction, using the standard’s melody to subtly underscore the story of Coltrane and Hartman’s historic 1963 session. Having often included poetry and spoken word elements in prior performances, Elling’s narration is suitably sensitive and surprisingly pleasing, holding up remarkably well with repeated listening. Like the entire session, it is a classy tribute to the two jazz legends.

“Dedicated to You,” the first selection from the Coltrane-Hartman session proper, is a true vocal tour-de-force from Elling. It also features notably intriguing string arrangements and some crisply eloquent solo statements from Hopgood, making it one of Dedicated’s standout tracks. Though the Coltrane-Hartman is considered one of jazz’s most romantic albums ever, it includes Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” one of the great anti-love songs. Elling’s dramatic performance conveys both the dreamy spirit of Hartman’s interpretation as well as the world weary meaning of Strayhorn’s lyrics.

Elling and company put their own stamp on “They Say It’s Wonderful” taking it as an up-tempo swinger, allowing Hopgood to really cut loose in his solo. Conversely, their rendition of “My One and Only” is even more languid and melancholy than 1963 version. Dedicated concludes with Elling’s achingly lyrical take on “You Are Too Beautiful,” ending the program on a definite high note.

Given his image as an edgy hipster, a neo-classical songbook tribute might seem a surprising choice from Elling, but he approaches the material with audible ardor. Dedicated is a heartfelt, respectful, and frequently swinging tribute concert CD that should appeal to a wide spectrum of listeners, much as the original Coltrane-Hartman session has.