This guy . . .
No. Actually, it’s this guy:
My first experience with Elling had, for reasons lost to the vagaries of memory, to do with the combination of a late Saturday night and the television which, being bored, aimless and solitary, I turned on. I stumbled onto a broadcast from the Newport Jazz Festival on PBS, and saw that it was this singer I had heard about, Kurt Elling. There had already been some hype, as much as there can be in the jazz world, and I was a little skeptical; the most recent big new jazz singer was Nora Jones, who doesn’t sing much and can’t sing jazz. So who was this guy?
The band launched into a bass-line vamp in the Dominant which resolved cooly and elegantly into the Tonic, and then Elling started to sing ‘Easy Living.’ I was hooked before he got to the end of the first phrase. It was immediately clear that he wasn’t just singing jazz, but that he was, and is, a jazz musician. He was singing the song with the conception of an instrumentalist, with the idea of how a horn could play the line and sort out the intervals; he sounded like a combination Dexter Gordon and Frank Sinatra, managing the feat of simultaneously keeping in time and staying behind the beat, dividing the melody into short and long phrases and singing each one all the way through. And the singing chops; unerring pitch, masterful breath support, the ability to move his voice around and change timbre and color in the middle of a phrase. Add to that an elegant, charming and supremely confident presence, and I spent the next half-hour completely thrilled and astonished. Then I ordered all this records (you can hear ‘Easy Living’ on the exceptional “Flirting With Twilight”).
These records, all very good to extraordinary, establish Elling as not only the greatest jazz singer of his generation but the greatest singer in the world at the moment. It’s more than just the voice itself and his ability to sing, which are unsurpassed in any genre, but the musicianship. There are plenty of good singers who are not good musicians, and the combination of the two, rare (Placido Domingo is another), allows for musical conception and ambition that go beyond just singing songs. While not superficially and avant-gardiste, Elling is a daring musician who seeks exceptional challenges and exceeds them. This comes through most clearly in his dedication to vocalese, the art of recreating, with the voice, a previously recorded jazz instrumentalists solo, using lyrics created to fit the line and the music. The idea and style began in the be-bop era, arguably created by Eddie Jefferson and King Pleasure, and has remained as a tiny sub-speciality in the already sparsely populated universe of real jazz singers.
Vocalese singers are classicists and modernists, they preserve the recorded past through memorization and then transform and recontextualize it into ever-new experiences. They are the jazz musician’s jazz singers, learning their craft the way instrumentalists do, through practicing and mastering the solos of musicians they admire. Elling has embraced the tradition and added to it substantially through his voice and his words. Since he can essentially sing anything, he’s free to choose music that appeals to him, no matter how difficult. He has vocalized a Charlie Haden bass solo, ‘Moonlight Serenade,’ Coltrane’s solo from the ‘Resolution’ section of “A Love Supreme,” and a solo from Freddie Hubbard on ‘Freddie’s Yen For Jen,’ which is the greatest vocal performance I have ever heard. Elling writes his own lyrics, and they are as exceptional as his singing; grounded in Rilke and Neruda, they are poetic, funny, introspective and extroverted. They consistently convey the singer’s personal questions, which include theological issues and meditations on the death of his brother, in a context that is always appropriate to the song itself. And he has gone even further afield. On “Live In Chicago,” you can hear him interpolate Saint John of the Cross’s ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ into ‘My Foolish Heart,’ and on his penultimate record he not only creates vocalese set to music from Keith Jarrett and Dexter Gordon, he sets Roethke’s ‘The Waking’ for voice accompanied by bass only. It’s exceptional.
Now we have a new Elling record, “Dedicated To You,” which channels his ambitions into a context that is less musically daring but historically vital, a response to the popular and quasi-classic “John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman” record of 1963. It’s a live record, a concert given as part of Lincoln Center’s American Songbook Series, and along with his usual group, the Laurence Hobgood Trio, adds the great Ernie Watts and Ethel String Quartet, with arrangements from Hobgood. Not as musically daring in the sense of showing just what can be done with the voice, and singing, but artistically ambitious in making the past come alive and delivering something beautiful.
There is a danger in jazz performances which seek to recreate previous jazz records or events. Jazz is the most in-the-moment music there is, music which works by making itself a-new and brand-new each time its performed. Using a foundation of musical history as the starting point to make new history is an act that is reverent and irreverent at the same time, it acknowledges that debt to history and then says, “here’s what I think of all that.” Too much reverence emasculates jazz, and making performances and records as museum pieces kills it. This is why the recording of Mingus’ “Epitaph,” despite its historical and musicological importance, fails. It slavishly seeks to follow what instruction Mingus left behind and ends up as a lifeless description of Mingus’ work. Jazz is not classical music, it lives in the musicians themselves, not on the printed page. The score, the recording, is not Mingus, only Mingus is Mingus. This is also the problem with the Wynton Marsalis historical-reverent approach at Lincoln Center. Recreating past jazz, no matter how important the music was, is not jazz, it is worship. Jazz may have deep roots in the church, jazz worship should be left to the fans. When musicians worship jazz, they destroy it.
Remember, don’t recreate, that’s the imperative. On a double-bill with Elling at Herbst Theater in San Francisco, Mark Murphy said, “what Kurt and I try to do is not recreate the past, but remember it.” “Dedicated To You” is an act of memory, just as performing vocalese is, musicians contemplating their own recreation to music they know and love and offering their response to it. It is a great success. The original could not bear the weight of too much reverence. “John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman” is understandably cherished, it’s a lovely, relaxing record, but no masterpiece. Hartman had a beautiful baritone, and sings the standard material with sensitivity and skill, but the record is a little lugubrious, everything is performed as a ballad, Coltrane is consistently deferential to the singer when a little sense of challenge would be a welcome contrast.
The constructively irreverent take on all this in “Dedicated To You” begins with the fact that the record has more material than the touchstone, adding standards that Coltrane recorded elsewhere, like ‘Say It’ and ‘Nancy With The Laughing Face,’ and beginning with ‘All Or Nothing At All’ in a quasi-rumba vamp. The band then plays Rodgers’ and Hart’s ‘It’s Easy To Remember,’ while Elling delivers a monologue which describes the circumstances of the first record, and concludes with the key phrase, “but we remember, we’re jazz people.” Musical memory is as fungible as cash, and so the performances of songs from the original are, with one exception, completely unlike their earlier versions. The performance is more up-tempo all around, livelier and fresher in attitude and lighter in texture. The featured roles of voice and saxophone are reversed in interesting ways. Watts is the lush romantic, although he’s full of tempered fire as always, while Elling, with the searching force, focus and pleasing edge of his baritone, is a natural in the Coltrane role (and clearly has learned a great deal about singing by listening to and learning the playing of Coltrane, Gordon and Wayne Shorter). The title track begins with delicate pizzicato accompaniment in the strings, the flows into a loping, double-time feel; ‘Autumn Serenade,’ which ends the Coltrane record, here is based on the rhythmic vamp of the original arrangement, but is much faster, opens with an effusive Watts solo, and has Elling moving the lyric and the melody from darkness to light. ‘They Say It’s Wonderful’ is jaunty and hip here, the closing ‘You Are Too Beautiful’ begins in contemplative reverie, then moves to a gentle swing which itself builds to a sweeping, soaring performance.
The track which will immediately draw the most interested listeners, of course, is ‘Lush Life.’ Billy Strayhorn’s ballad is perhaps the most exceptional and unusual standard there is, a lyrically and musically complex long form ballad which moves through different styles and narratives. The song is frequently recorded and performed as a way for the musician to demonstrate their musical and emotional sophistication, but it is just as often understood. The complexity seems to invite a sort of grandiosity, a tendency to indulge in large scale gestures, completely wrong for a fundamentally introspective song about abject romantic failure; “I’ll live a lush life in some small dive/and there I’ll be/While I rot with the rest of those whose lives are lonely too.” More than anything, it’s a bitter ode to defeat and alcoholism. Treating it like a showy Broadway tune, a way to bring attention to the singer, as in this version from Queen Latifah, is antithetical to the song itself. In contrast, Elling is marvelously true. This is a song that requires real jazz singing, an emphasis on intervals that a horn would play, rather than incremental movements up and down scales like most other vocal styles, and hearing a master like Elling limn melody and harmony simultaneously is a deep pleasure. He also treats the mercurial emotional content of the lyrics with clarity and understanding, even the moments that express a retrospective hope are tinged with regret. He opens up vocally in places, only to musically and emotionally show how false that hope was. And to top it off, he pronounces distingué perfectly.
Hobgood, Elling’s longtime musical partner, arranges the music exceptionally well. His writing for and integration of the string quartet into a set of standards is generally seamless and well-judged, the only moment where one is reminded of all the awkward attempts to shove classical sounds into a jazz setting is a short soli section meant to feature Ethel. Rather than a successful display, it is just, unfortunately, awkward. Throughout the performance, though, Ethel produces accompaniment that sounds perfectly natural and appropriate. Hobgood’s subtle power as an arranger is in re-harmonizing passages of the songs, which he does both judiciously and to great effect. Hearing a passage that seems both familiar and new is intriguing to the ear, and it allows the musicians to place their own, new emphasis on material that is more than familiar to the listener. Each individual track has its own pleasures, but the experience of listening to ‘Dedicated To You’ through, as a whole, is, as they say, wonderful in every way.