There are two schools of thought on Kurt Elling. Both sides tend to agree that Elling is a talented interpreter of songs in the jazz style, and that he possesses a certain skill when it comes to scat and to vocalese. One side, however, laments Elling’s affinity for beat poetry, his über-hipster image, and his vocalese rants, which are often peppered with spiritual and philosophical themes carried over from his time in divinity school. The other side finds precisely these features of Elling’s work most fascinating and worthy of praise, and declares him the best and most talented male jazz singer working today. On his last Blue Note album, Flirting with Twilight, the singer put aside these elements and delivered a fairly straightforward recording of ballad standards. That album was widely praised as a step forward for Elling, heralding a new maturity in his work. Elling’s newest release, Man in the Air, is directed toward the group of listeners who adore his lyrical flights of fancy, beat hipster poetry, and high flying ideas.
Man in the Air highlights Elling’s skills as a lyricist, as he offers lyrics to a number of his favorite jazz compositions, many of them contemporary. There are some virtuoso performances, but there are also some remarkably gorgeous and emotionally charged lyrics to compositions by Pat Metheny, Joe Zawinul, Herbie Hancock, and Courtney Pine. Themes that emerge in Elling’s lyrics include love, loss, the power of the human spirit, and the spark of the divine. For example, his lyrics to Pat Metheny’s 6/8 romp “Minuano” are about meeting a new love interest, quite possibly the love of one’s life, but they are much more than romantic love poetry, emphasizing the divine nature of love, and the recognition of the divine in another. “Already been as high as Kathmandu / Willing to go as far as Timbuktu / Nowhere’s too far away / I may catch up with you today / Maybe today we’ll make our getaway”, he sings, double tracking his voice on the chorus’s second repetition, and you can feel yourself soaring up there with him. Brad Wheeler keeps the listener up there with a gorgeous solo, bolstered by Paul Wertico’s chattering rim accents and Laurence Hobgood’s powerful, blocky chords. Similarly, on “Higher Vibe” there’s a sense of spiritual optimism that carries over into the lyrics and the enthusiasm in Elling’s vocal delivery.
Grover Washington, Jr.‘s recording of “Winelight” is a smooth jazz classic, but it brimmed with Washington’s R&B influence as well. Elling’s version emphasizes the song’s melodic beauty, while his rhythm section digs in and offers a somewhat earthier backing. It’s a strong performance, and one that will surely please those who’ve loved the song since Washington recorded it. Another well-known modern jazz track that Elling tackles is Joe Zawinul’s “A Remark You Made”. Recast here as “Time to Say Goodbye”, the song is about the breakup of a relationship and that moment of saying goodbye. Even in its instrumental version, originally heard on the group’s Heavy Weather album, the song’s slow tempo and aching melody gave it a melancholy air, but Elling takes it to a new place, with Stefon Harris perfectly complementing the mood of the piece. Though the piece is sad, it is tempered by hope and by the realization that love is never truly left behind.
Other songs offer simpler pleasures: a blues by Elling entitled “The More I Have You” provides an opportunity for Elling to go off on one of his scat excursions; Bob Mintzer’s song “All Is Quiet”, which was also performed by Elling on the Yellowjackets’ Club Nocturne, and The Association’s hit song “Never My Love”, a piece of pop fluff that is given greater depth and dignity by Elling. Once having decided a composition is worthy of his attention, Elling never condescends to the material, as is clear from both “Never My Love” and the humorous “Uncertainty of the Poet”, originally performed by vocal group Chanticleer.
The keys to the album, however, lie in its title track, an original composition by Elling and his pianist and longtime collaborator Laurence Hobgood, and Elling’s masterful vocalese on “Resolution”, the second section of John Coltrane’s suite “A Love Supreme”. Elling first offers an invocation to the many faces of God, approximating beautifully the full, open sound of Trane’s tenor. Invoking Mohammed, Jesus, Vishnu, and other deities, Elling then goes on to relate the visions of a priest and another observer standing at the edge of the universe and watching the river of time swirl past. The priest pronounces, as he sees the place in the universe where everything comes to its end: “I know about birth / I know about death, and how the light goes out of men /—the life departing—powerless / Giving it up—but in the vast indifference / I invent a deeper meaning / I’m the one who will say ‘use the will every day or go mad trying—go to war against the impotent side of living’”. That is certainly the most human of views of life, and is a brilliant declaration of the power and strength of the human spirit. It’s a real virtuoso performance, and one that will delight those who enjoy Elling’s surreal flights of lyrical fancy. It’s interesting, too, since Coltrane himself composed the final section of his suite around the words of a prayer he wrote, using his horn rather than voice to speak the words.
The album’s title track turns out to be about Wayne Shorter, although Elling originally thought, as he worked on the lyrics to Hobgood’s music, that he might be writing about a guru or about physicist Stephen Hawking: “The man up in the air—has a vision of everywhere / Recollected—and finally connected / And harmonized”. Shorter is certainly a touchstone for most modern jazz artists, and especially for composers, which is the role that Elling has taken on with this CD. There will be those who will wish that Elling would stick to skillful interpretations of standard material, but they miss the point. Kurt Elling is one of our best jazz singers, to be sure, but he is more than that, a fitting successor to the likes of Jon Hendricks. There may not be a large number of male singers plumbing the jazz vocal tradition and writing vocalese, but as long as we’ve got Kurt Elling, we don’t have to worry about the tradition—it’s in great hands.