Swing Time: Kurt Elling

Swing Time: Kurt Elling

“First of all, the groove has got to be the thing,” might be a surprising statement coming from a singer who has spent nearly his entire career within the jazz orbit. But Kurt Elling very much wants to emphasize that SuperBlue, his ongoing collaboration with guitarist Charlie Hunter, is all about the unexpected.

“Almost everything I’ve done before,” Elling says, “has been in the acoustic realm, even though there have been shoots and sprouts of R&B and pop music and related genres coming through. But this time, I’m pulling myself away from the more traditional acoustic jazz—however innovative—and singing a lot louder, dancing around a lot more.”

SuperBlue: The Iridescent Spree, due Sept. 15 via Edition Records, is the second full[1]length result of Elling’s long, if sporadic, partnership with Hunter. The veteran musicians met in the ‘90s and first appeared together on an official release in 2001, Hunter’s Songs From the Analog Playground album. By that time, Elling had already been releasing albums as a leader for a full decade. The origins of SuperBlue, which also features keyboardist DJ Harrison and drummer Corey Fonville, trace back to a 2021 self-titled album, which was nominated for a Grammy. That was followed earlier this year by a covers EP, Guilty Pleasures, and now the nine-track sophomore set, which advances the concept significantly.

“Working with Charlie Hunter, that’s really the crux of it,” says the Chicago-born, 55-year-old Elling. “Charlie and I are really the atomic center of what SuperBlue is, and then we’ve got this constellation of musicians that we’re so happy to engage, to pull in.” In addition to Fonville and Harrison, both members of the Butcher Brown jazz quintet, Elling and Hunter are assisted on the album by the Huntertones horns and flutist Elena Pinderhughes. Together they romp through covers by sources as diverse as Ornette Coleman, Ron Sexsmith, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dorough, whose “Naughty Number Nine” was picked up from the first season of Schoolhouse Rock! One of the album’s original compositions, all of which were co-written by Elling, is “Little Fairy Carpenter,” based on “A Song for Karen Carpenter,” from Hunter’s 2008 album Baboon Strength.

Throughout, those grooves that Elling referred to are never less than deep, and his vocal phrasing is full of unanticipated multi-octave twists; Hunter’s guitar work, as it’s always been, is impeccable. If Elling’s regular audience is surprised by the deviation in approach, the preponderance of more pronounced rhythms and the relative lack of reliance on acoustic instrumentation, then that’s what the artists were after.

“We’ve been exploring this big beat that we’re working with,” Elling says. “Charlie and I are both really interested in continuing to expand.”

While each of the tracks has something unique to offer, “Freeman Square”—with music by Don Was and lyrics by Elling and Phil Galdston—is, in many ways, emblematic of what this aggregation is capable of achieving. The album’s title is taken from its lyrics. That phrase, “the iridescent spree,” says Elling, “is the thrill, the frizzante that is life itself. It’s so easy to get bogged down in stuff that is inconsequential. The way the news is, it’s easy to get depressed, to be like, ‘Ugh, this day.’ The lyric is basically about two friends, and one is that guy who stays up all night and is kind of the most interesting man in the world. He can meet with the president of Tuvalu one day and learn some throat singing, and then, by night, he’s gyrating around in the hottest nightclubs with Thai massage models or something. He can navigate all of it. He’s saying to his friend, ‘Dude, what are you going home for? That thing you’ve been looking and praying for is not gonna come to you tonight if you go home. You gotta go out and search for it. Let’s go!’ He’s trying to seduce his buddy to go out, have some life and not just give it up.”

If The Iridescent Spree takes both Hunter and, especially, Elling adrift from their usual jazz comfort zone, then that’s a plus in their eyes. When Elling was growing up in Chicago, where his father was a church musician, he had almost no exposure to the city’s homegrown blues scene, and jazz sort of snuck up on him. But, once he discovered the music, he dove right in, learning from records and understanding innately that swinging and improvising were positive attributes. Turns out, he was pretty good at it.

“I was so wet behind the ears,” he says. “Musicians from the jazz scene pulled me in and said, ‘You should try this. Why don’t you come to my gig and sing a couple?’”

Elling’s initial response was to say, “You guys are cool jazz musicians. You really want to hang out with me?”

They very much did and, over the years, Elling has hung out with many of the best. He even performed “Black Crow,” the Joni Mitchell song that SuperBlue covers on the new album, with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter at the Hollywood Bowl.

Elling has continued to seek out challenges since the start of his career. “The improvisation and the risk-taking nature of the music are the most exciting and definitive parts of the jazz experience,” he says. “It’s still so surprising that I get to do this at all. I’m still out here after almost 30 years. I’m on the road and some people seem to like what I do. So I try to embrace it and do my best. When I look over my shoulder at the end of the road, maybe I’ll have made some good records, sung some good notes, helped some people feel good for 90 minutes, had a good time with my guys and kept my family together. I just try to keep my head on straight, keep going and keep asking myself: ‘What’s my next record going to be?’”

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