No one could have known it at the time, but the seeds for vocalist Kurt Elling’s SuperBlue may have been sown when he guested on seven-string hybrid guitarist Charlie Hunter’s underrated, genre-bending 2001 release, Songs from the Analog Playground. Twenty years later, the Grammy-winning Elling expands his horizons with Hunter (who co-produced SuperBlue with him) and keyboardist DJ Harrison and drummer Corey Fonville, both from the funk/jazz/hip-hop group Butcher Brown. With travel restricted during the COVID-19 pandemic, Elling never even met his Butcher Brown bandmates. Hunter acted as the go-between, recording basic tracks with them; presenting the instrumentals to the singer to interpret; and then finishing the project with Elling, all in separate studio locations.
From the downbeat of the strutting opening title track, it’s clear that this is Elling as you’ve never heard him before. The vocalist uses every octave at his disposal on romantic image-laden lyrics he wrote for the Bernard Ingher composition, with Hunter, Harrison, and Fonville contributing sounds more produced, processed, and percolating than even Elling’s previous shape-shifting norms. Ditto the subsequent “Sassy,” a Bill Bodine-penned track covered by the Manhattan Transfer, on which Elling alternates between spoken word and sonorous singing amid Fonville’s syncopated, hip-hop-approved beats and Harrison’s channeling of Head Hunters-era Herbie Hancock.
Original highlights include the R&B throwback “Manic Panic Epiphanic,” featuring Elling’s overdubbed, gospel-tinged harmonies, Hunter’s dizzyingly simultaneous guitar melodies and bass mimickry, and Harrison’s electric piano; and “Can’t Make It With Your Brain,” with its combination of James Brown rhythms and abstract Elling lyrics (“Elvis tells mummy aliens to shut us down!”). The singer also includes a cover of Cody Chesnutt’s soulful “The Seed” and adds poetic lyrics to a plaintive Wayne Shorter melody (“Aung San Suu Kyi”) on “Where to Find It,” enhancing SuperBlue against all odds.