By Eric Volmers for Postmedia News
There are few genres in music that don’t benefit from the interplay of musicians all playing in the same room.
But it could be argued that this is particularly important when recording jazz. For American jazz singer-songwriter Kurt Elling, whose recording career stretches back to his Grammy-nominated, 1995 jazz-vocal debut Close Your Eyes, this approach wasn’t possible when it came to recording 2021’s SuperBlue.
“For straight-ahead jazz, the premium is being in the moment and responding to specific, usually improvised moments,” says Elling, in an interview with Postmedia from his home in Chicago. “With SuperBlue, it was a lot more like a pop record in terms of its logistics. Being in the middle of COVID, it was a tough one. We couldn’t even get together.”
Luckily, SuperBlue is hardly straight-ahead jazz. Over the years, Elling’s elastic baritone has covered everything from beat-poet spoken word to free-flowing scat to skillful crooning. But the consensus on SuperBlue is that it presents the singer at his funkiest, a direct result of the unusual way Elling and producer-guitarist Charlie Hunter recorded it. Hunter, a renowned jazz guitarist who has featured Elling on his own albums, joined forces with drummer Corey Fonville and bassist DJ Harrison – the rhythm section of Virginia’s forward-looking jazz and hip-hop fusionists Butcher Brown – in Virginia and began laying down a number of instrumental demos.
“I was stuck here in Chicago,” says Elling, who will join Hunter in leading the ensemble for a show at the Jack Singer Concert Hall on June 23 as part of the Arts Commons TD Jazz Series. “So they laid a bunch of tracks down over there without any melody and without any lyrics. They just sent me these tracks as demos and it was up to me to complete the task, to figure out what it was going to become after that. Thankfully, they made outrageously groovy things and it was very inspiring for me.”
While Elling was never in the same room as his young collaborators or officially met them, SuperBlue still sounds like an urgent, live-wire collection that features the singer applying his powerful pipes to several groove-heavy tracks.
While the album might be a departure, it still features some Elling trademarks. Ever since his first album found him adding lyrics and a vocal line to saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s “Dolores,” he has been known for creating vocalese versions of iconic jazz instrumentals.
On SuperBlue, he adds lyrics and vocals to free-jazz pianist Carla Bley’s “Lawns” and Shorter’s “Aung San Suu Kyi,” turning them into “Endless Lawns” and “Where To Find It” respectively. Elling, Hunter, Fonville, and Harrison even offer a funked-up version of “Circus,” transforming Tom Waits’ surreal spoken-word dirge into a frantic funk workout.
“Creative juxtaposition is a heavy portion of what I ordinarily do,” Elling says. “Even when I stick with the straight-ahead jazz stuff, I don’t think anybody had thought of juxtaposing (Rainer Marie) Rilke and Dave Brubeck or juxtaposing (13th-century Persian poet) Rumi with Keith Jarrett. But that’s where I find the lion’s share of creativity resides, juxtaposing ideas that haven’t come into contact before like that.”
Elling says it springs from his deep interest in both “heightened language and the heightened experience of music.”
“It means that I’ve been exploring and going down the labyrinth of thought situations that other people haven’t,” he says. “I’ve got a master’s degree in philosophy of religion and I have a master’s degree in swinging from the university of Von Freeman. Right away, there’s going to be some new opportunities for me that might not have occurred to people in the past.”
Despite his large and varied canon of music, Elling says he and Hunter will likely stick to his latest release for their show in Calgary.
“This is time for SuperBlue, this is the electric band,” he says. “So we’re going to get up and get groovy.”
SuperBlue: Kurt Elling featuring Charlie Hunter will take place June 23 at the Jack Singer Concert Hall as part of Arts Commons’ TD Jazz series.