Mainstream jazz is in a retrospective mood right now, with a multitude of projects exploring the charts and achievements of the great figures of the 1960s. Kurt Elling’s investigation of the territory opened up by Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane inhabits the innovative side of this phenomenon, doing as much to transform the material as to revive it. Elling has a sophisticated, restrained vocal style, yet he enjoys improvising and specializes in writing new lyrics for jazz standards. One of the highlights on Thursday was “A New Body and Soul,” which wove a dazzling strand of introspection and literary allusion through the words and rhythms of one of music’s most familiar pieces. The band featured Ernie Watts on tenor sax, and Watts did a great job of keeping the music flowing without once conjuring an unflattering comparison to Coltrane’s recorded performances. Pianist Laurence Hobgood was equally at home in the arrangements he wrote, and his playing, which recalled Count Basie at times, made one look forward to his forthcoming release of duet recordings with bassist Charlie Haden. Thursday’s bassist, Clark Sommers, drove the whole night with aplomb, and the drummer, Ulysses Owens, was tasteful and focused even on the slinkiest, most behind the beat ballads.
Elling’s most striking departure from standard concert presentation involved a substantial monologue in which he portrayed the singer, Johnny Hartman, and his bandleader, John Coltrane, as they drove to the recording studio on a cold winter’s night in 1963. Thanks to Elling’s crafty delivery, this aside fit in perfectly with the smoky ambiance of the set.
The songs on the Hartman and Coltrane record-“They Say It’s Wonderful,” “Dedicated to You,” “You Are Too Beautiful,”-were all there, each rendered with care and lavish attention to detail. But it wasn’t until Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” that Elling fulfilled the dramatic promise of his introduction. The version was full of slurred words and unexpected shifts in tempo and emphasis, as the singer lifted the sodden, resigned persona of the song into a whole new nimbus of unearthly blue light.