Kurt Elling’s latest opus, Dedicated to You, documents a January 2009 concert on which the 41-year-old singer — framed by his working trio, the Ethel String Quartet, and tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts — addresses the repertoire performed by John Coltrane on his popular 1963 collaboration with baritone crooner Johnny Hartman (John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman) and on Coltrane’s equally revered 1962 songbook project, Ballads. For all the iconic status of these albums, each was a one-take affair on material drawn more or less randomly from the musical theater and Brill Building wings of the Great American Songbook — the British Invasion was still a year away, and these songs, not yet “classics,” were still positioned firmly in the zeitgeist. While neither Coltrane nor Hartman needed much prepping to bring forth a point of view, Elling — he launched this project on a commission from the 2006 Chicago Jazz Festival — offers anything but an impromptu treatment. Instead, he offers a highly curated, polished recital, deploying savvy stagecraft to engage the audience, weaving in and out of the tight arrangements in ways that allow him to project his idiosyncratic sensibility with impeccable craft in matters of pitch, breath control, and command of meter. Dedicated is less conceptually ambitious than Elling’s prior date, Nightmoves, on which he wove together leitmotifs drawn from poem-song, original lyrics set to instrumental improvisations from the jazz canon, and extended, on-the-highwire vocalese improvs into an explicit narrative arc, which he described as “late night; dark night of the soul; only questions at the top of the form and only beautiful answers at the end.” As on his 2001 Blue Note tour de force, Flirting with Twilight, Elling asserts his embrace of the terms of engagement that existed for Hartman, and such core Elling influences as Mark Murphy, Jon Hendricks, Nat Cole, and Frank Sinatra; performances like “Nancy with the Laughing Face,” “Lush Life” and the title track confirm his stature as a musician who can be mentioned in the same conversation with those masters.
About the Author
Ted Panken writes extensively about jazz for various publications, including DownBeat and Jazziz, as well as the website www.jazz.com. He's presented it on WKCR-FM in New York City since 1985. He won the 2007 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for his article "Smalls Universe," published by DownBeat.