This Time It’s Love (Blue Note, 1998)
Elling’s two most consequential influences, Frank Sinatra and Mark Murphy, are skillfully balanced in this standards-heavy set of elegant readings subtly bent with keen interpretive experimentation. Provided lean support from a core quartet of pianist Laurence Hobgood, guitarist Dave Onderdonk, bassist Rob Amster and drummer/percussionist Michael Raynor, Elling travels from the romantic depths of “My Foolish Heart” to a lighter-than-air “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing” and, propelled by violinist Johnny Frigo, a puckish “I Feel So Smoochie.” Highlight: Elling shaping a paean to wife Jennifer with a roiling vocalese reworking of “She’s Funny That Way.”
Nightmoves (Concord Jazz, 2007)
Elling’s penchant for mixing works by poets of all stripes first reached full stride with Nightmoves. A band featuring Hobgood, Amster, drummer Willie Jones III and, on six of 11 tracks, bassist Christian McBride is augmented by assorted guests. Elling commingles Walt Whitman, Roethke, Betty Carter, Michael Franks, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin and Randy Bachman, and twice navigates exquisite pairings: “Change Partners” with “If You Never Come to Me,” featuring Jobim-worthy accompaniment from guitarist Guilherme Monteiro; and a heartbreaking interweaving of a Keith Jarrett improvisation and “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.”
Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman (Concord Jazz, 2009)
Following nominations for seven previous albums, Elling at long last nabbed the Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album with this stunningly insightful reimagining of 1963’s landmark John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. Recording live at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Elling and co-producer Hobgood remain respectfully true to the original arrangements while coloring outside those lines. The Coltrane-Hartman album spanned six standards; Elling digs deeper into their respective repertoires to add five more, while showcasing a sumptuous mélange of a Hobgood-led trio, the string quartet ETHEL and, filling Coltrane’s tenor berth, Ernie Watts.
Passion World (Concord Jazz, 2015)
Elling’s first studio session following his professional split with pianist Laurence Hobgood, after close to two decades of living in one another’s musical pockets, understandably finds him traversing new vistas. Following nods to endings (John Clayton’s “The Verse”) and fresh beginnings (“After the Door,” Elling’s reinvention of Pat Metheny’s “Another Life”), he ventures from Björk’s Iceland and U2’s Ireland to Dori Caymmi’s Brazil, Arturo Sandoval’s Cuba, even Brahms’ Vienna, never looking back. He ultimately lands—softly, cerebrally—back in Ireland, melding composer Brian Byrne’s “Where Love Is” with the verse of James Joyce.
The Questions (OKeh/Sony Masterworks, 2018)
Never one to shy away from profound philosophical musings, Elling pairs with co-producer Branford Marsalis to ponder life’s eternal questions. Even when the quest turns romantic it’s unresolved, as Elling plumbs the yearning ache of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “I Have Dreamed.” As expected, he draws upon many sources—Dylan, Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, Carla Bley, Wallace Stevens, Johnny Mercer, Sara Teasdale—to help define his search for answers. And perhaps he finds a definitive one in his redefinition of Jaco Pastorius’ “Three Views of a Secret,” transformed via Rumi-inspired lyrics into “A Secret in Three Views,” positing that love is all that matters.
Listen to this Spotify playlist with songs from the five recommended albums and others: