Kurt Elling: Man in the Air

Marshall Bowden

Kurt Elling

Man in the Air

Label: Blue Note
US Release Date: 2003-07-22
UK Release Date: 2003-07-21

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.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.