More than just supplying a new interpretation of a 45-year-old jazz classic, Kurt Elling has taken John Coltrane’s 1963 songbook and applied to his voice the sort of inventiveness that the legendary saxophonist brought to his instrument at the time. Coltrane was in a mellow mood that year, and over the course of three albums, “Ballads” and his collaborations with Duke Ellington and the singer Johnny Hartman, he emphasized warmth and lyrical qualities in his playing. For almost two hours at Bing, Elling used Hartman’s baritone and Trane’s tenor as springboards, much as Coltrane ventured into 1964 with an entirely new perspective on jazz.
In a jazz world that is constantly wrapping itself around tribute concepts, this one is exceptional. It provides Elling with a tried-and-true template for his unique gifts, which include, but are not limited to, a remarkable sense of pitch, timbral control and deliberate yet off-kilter phrasing. His baritone might align with the Hartman recording for only a few notes on, say, “Lush Life” or “Autumn Serenade,” but he reveals the connective tissue between the original and the new.
Similarly with Laurence Hobgood’s fine piano playing — McCoy Tyner played on the original record — romantic underpinnings abound, with a layer of pensiveness added. Both musicians, in this context, operate like students taking a math test and being required to show the formulas they used to reach their conclusions; like Coltrane, Elling and Hobgood take a path that has no map. Performance of “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” the Gene DePaul/Don Raye tune that Elling recorded on “Flirting With Twilight,” was a jaw-dropper.
Ernie Watts, whose best-known work has been with Charlie Haden’s Quartet West, has a tone substantially different from Coltrane. Trane’s playing at the time was moans, caresses and hallelujahs; Watts opts for pleas, promises and linear thought — invigorating throughout the evening. Watts was smooth and playful on the rumba rendition of “All or Nothing at All,” more Trane-like in his approach on “Bessie’s Blues” and “Say It (Over and Over Again).”
Unlike the Coltrane/Hartman album, Elling has included a string quartet that enhanced the romantic tone of the music, dropping in some lovely pizzicato touches and a bit of daring in some classically oriented arrangements.
Elling, his band and Watts will be performing the program through early next year, visiting the Monterrey Jazz Fest, London and D.C.’s Kennedy Center.