Jazz Singer Kurt Elling Performs Tribute to John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman

Kurt Elling will play with Ernie Watts and the Ethel String Quartet tomorrow at the Kennedy Center.
Kurt Elling will play with Ernie Watts and the Ethel String Quartet tomorrow at the Kennedy Center. (Helayne Seidman - The Washington Post)
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 27, 2009

Since the mid-1990s, no singer in jazz has been as daring, dynamic or interesting as Kurt Elling. The onetime theology student from Chicago has found a fresh musical territory by channeling, in equal parts, Frank Sinatra, bebop hipster Mark Murphy and an all-night poetry slam.

With his soaring vocal flights, his edgy lyrics and sense of being on a musical mission, he has come to embody the creative spirit in jazz -- which makes his current project all the more surprising.

Elling has never seemed a likely choice to waltz down the tribute trail, but tomorrow night he will be at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater with his interpretation of one of the most beloved jazz recordings. He calls the program "Dedicated to You," after one of the songs from "John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman," a 1963 album that jazz listeners have long treasured as one of the most romantic records ever made.

Elling knows better than to try to improve on perfection. Instead, he and his trio -- augmented by saxophonist Ernie Watts and the genre-shattering Ethel String Quartet -- will filter Coltrane and Hartman through their own modern sensibilities.

"For me, it wouldn't be very interesting to reiterate the past," Elling said in a recent interview. "The best way to respect what's gone before, especially with someone like John Coltrane, is to continue to try to innovate."

Elling's Coltrane-Hartman project began about four years ago, when the Chicago Jazz Festival commissioned a concert from him. Last year, he and his longtime musical partner, pianist Laurence Hobgood, added some new arrangements and emerged with a program that presses into the future while respecting the past.

The 41-year-old Elling has won Down Beat magazine's critics' poll as the top male singer for the past eight years and has released seven CDs in his relatively young career. A live recording of the Coltrane-Hartman program at New York's Lincoln Center will be released later this year.

Elling is still based in his native Chicago -- he bought his condo four years ago from the nation's new No. 1 jazz fan, Barack Obama -- but in the past year, he has been spending more time in New York with his wife and 3-year-old daughter.

His circuitous path to jazz wound its way through divinity school at the University of Chicago, which he quit one credit short of a master's in the philosophy of religion. His father is a Lutheran church organist and minister of music, "so I was always exposed to the idea of the higher purpose of music."

In concert, Elling is apt to quote Walt Whitman, Jack Kerouac, Saint John of the Cross or the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi, and somehow it all works. But even as he pushes vocal jazz in new directions, Elling still keeps his ears open to the music's history.

"If you're going to be a jazz singer," he says, "you have to listen to all the great singers of the past. I want all those sounds inside me."

With his latest project, Elling is helping revive the forgotten career of his fellow Chicagoan Johnny Hartman. The two aren't that similar in vocal styles -- Elling is an experimenter, and Hartman was a pure interpreter of song, with a burnished voice, elegant phrasing and an intimate way of reading lyrics.

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