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Kurt Elling: Man in the Air

You’ve got to envy Chicagoans. Right under their noses are the two most visionary American vocalists on the contemporary jazz scene. Neither Patricia Barber nor Kurt Elling knows the meaning of the word compromise; and though both could probably define the term mainstream it’s not a place either has visited. Barber came the closest she’s ever likely to with Nightclub, her first and only all-standards collection. She then took a 90-degree turn for the all-originals masterpiece Verse. Likewise, Elling’s most recent disc, the standards-heavy Flirting With Twilight, ranks as his most accessible session to date. For a follow-up he’s decided, like Barber, to travel in a whole new direction. As the title of Man in the Air suggests, that direction is skyward.

Elling is, it seems, eager for public exploration of his relationship with whatever higher being (or beings) he has a relationship with. This is, then, the Gospel According to Kurt (with a little help from Metheny, Coltrane, Hancock and Zawinul). Though hardly the first collision of spiritual awakening and hard-core jazz, it is surely one of the best. Of the album’s dozen tracks, 10 feature Elling lyrics fitted to instrumental gems from the masters he admires most, (who, in a sense, are the human gods he worships). Metheny’s “Minuano” becomes a soaring salute to divine love. Both “Time to Say Goodbye,” adapted from Zawinul’s “A Remark You Made” (on Weather Report’s Heavy Weather) and “Secret and I” (from Hancock’s “Alone and I”) richly examine the tragedy of loss and the opposing power of redemption. The title track, cowritten with pianist Laurence Hobgood (Elling’s right-hand man-his St. Peter, so to speak) is all about connecting with the man upstairs. Or is it? Elling himself has suggested that it’s actually homage to the heavenly Wayne Shorter.

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