Recently this writer is pondering if there are any limits to Kurt Elling’s talent. We witnessed a two-hour radio play, Big Blind, at the virtual Detroit Jazz Festival held in the beginning of September. His 2020 project Secrets Are the Best Stories, with pianist Danilo Perez won a Grammy. Now we have one of the premier jazz vocalists of our time taking a major left turn with SuperBlue, an album of funk, insistent beats, and contemporary lyrics under the auspices of producer-guitarist Charlie Hunter and two musicians more often associated with hip-hop: drummer Corey Fonville, and bassist-keyboardist DJ Harrison (both of Butcher Brown).
While Elling has long proved his mettle at bebop, pop, progressive jazz, and even neo-soul, he’s never been heard in this context. He even sings through a vocoder on some tracks. This is a beats-fueled record that you can dance to. Talk about making a play for a new audience – seldom has a well-known artist taken such a drastic turn. How about the hipster humor – “Are you a brick house or a brick” or a song title like “Manic Panic Epiphanic,” the latter with verses to “He’s got the whole wide world in his hands.”
The opening title track is pure funk and one of the better tracks, floating in over a hypnotic bass riff and hand drums. “Sassy” has Elling taking on Manhattan Transfer’s four vocalists just by himself. “Where to Find It” is powered by Hunter’s guitar, using the wah-wah effectively, as the band lays down a neo-soul groove. “Can’t Make It With Your Brain” (with that “brick house/brick” line is story of the hook-up from hell and it moves along as funky as any track but it’s here that one can question whether this recording would have been even more effective if all participants had been able to record in one studio together instead of 1000 miles apart. Sometimes they err on the slick versus the gritty and greasy with “The Seed” being the perfect example of the former, notwithstanding that it’s a fine radio track. Just like, at least to this writer, Butcher Brown’s live act is immensely better than their recordings, these tunes would likely be much more impactful in a live setting.
“Dharma Bums” flows along smoothly, a combination of jazz noir poetry, neo-soul, and Steely Dan stylings. It’s one of Elling’s most expansive vocal takes in terms of his range but it would benefit from background vocalists on the choruses. Hunter again resorts to the wah-wah, maybe overusing it at this point. Like most ambitious experiments, some tracks work, and others not quite as well. Although one does start to conjure the notion that Elling could indeed by a more refined version of Tom Waits – as evidenced by the beat heavy “Circus,” which works well or a vintage soul singer as he renders Carla Bley’s soul ballad “Endless Lawns,” which first appeared on Elling’s The Questions, in a new groove. Elling says, “We recorded this some years ago with Branford Marsalis. But I know there was more in this composition for us to fool with, so I asked Charlie and the boys to give me a different grove here and they sure did come through.”
Whether you fall on the side of “brilliant experimental failure” or “one of the soulful, funkiest vocal albums heard” or somewhere in between, like this writer, one should give kudos to Elling for trying on some new clothing. It’s refreshing to see an artist of his stature taking this kind of risk.
- Jim Hynes