‘The Iridescent Spree’ is released on 15th Sept on Edition Records
The follow up to 2021’s remarkable SuperBlue, the album once again sees Elling joining forces with producer/guitarist Charlie Hunter and multi-instrumentalist duo drummer Corey Fonville and bassist-keyboardist DJ Harrison (of Richmond, VA-based jazz-funk fusion quintet Butcher Brown) for a kaleidoscopic collection of new songs, surprising covers, and dynamic reinventions, all animated by crafty production, crack musicianship, and Elling’s instantly identiﬁable vocal prowess. If the ﬁrst album was a somewhat radical departure for Elling, SuperBlue: The Iridescent Spree is more of an exquisite progression upon the template. Equally informed by R&B, neo-soul, classic pop, psychedelic poetry, rowdy funk, and of course jazz in all its many guises, songs like the ebullient, anthemic “Freeman Square” and the simmering, brass-blasted “Not Here/Not Now” are layered with Elling’s inventive lyricism, their supple swing and rhythmic elasticity rife with wit, pathos, and a wry sense of the human condition.
“We’re up here to create beauty and to explore what it’s like to be a person; what that sounds like,” Kurt Elling says. “Sometimes this is what it sounds like.”
Lauded by Down Beat as “an interpreter of popular song whose presence on the scene has, without evident irony, kept alive a style and standard of presentation… an artful conveyer of meaning through words whose achievements in vocalese have added another dimension to jazz melodies,” Elling has collected international honors and accolades galore, including two GRAMMY® Awards (with 14 total nominations), two Dutch Edison Awards, a German Echo Award, Male Vocalist of the Year on the Down Beat Critics Poll (18x), the Down Beat Readers Poll (15x), and the Jazz Times Readers Poll (8x). Now approaching three decades, Elling’s idiosyncratic career has been marked by both deeply focused, stunningly personal solo albums and a rich variety of alliances with artists including Branford Marsalis and Danilo Perez.
His work with Charlie Hunter – a prodigious musician and producer whose own genre-agnostic oeuvre has long seen him crisscrossing the bridge between jazz and hip-hop – began after their ﬁrst meeting in 1995, an on-and-off collaboration that ultimately brought them to a completely unexpected destination with SuperBlue. Weaving vivacious funk with Elling’s one-of-a-kind brand of contemporary beat lyricism and vocalese brilliance, the album proved a milestone in both artists’ wide-ranging bodies of work, earning international applause along with a 2022 GRAMMY® Award nomination as “Best Jazz Vocal Album.”
Where the ﬁrst SuperBlue outing was fully a product of the pandemic, almost entirely recorded remotely, this time out the band convened at Montrose Recording in Richmond, VA with engineer Adrian Olson (The Killers, The Head and the Heart) to construct a groove-centric musical notebook upon which Elling could employ his substantial abilities as both singer and songwriter. Having now spent considerable time together, both on stage and in the studio, the musicians had an increased familiarity of each other’s strengths and habits, along with a more intimate understanding of Elling’s unique artistry.
“There was a lot more interaction,” Elling says, “at the root level of creativity, just starting with the grooves, different key signatures and things like that, before anything even came close to becoming an actual composition. That gave me a lot more ﬂexibility as a co-writer. As opposed to the ﬁrst record, where it was just, here are the tracks, enjoy. Do what you can.”
“The way we made the ﬁrst one was so COVID-centric, but it worked,” Hunter says. “So when we made this record, I was like, let’s start it the same way we did the last one but this time we’ll get together with Kurt much earlier on. And, let’s do it, you know, obviously, without COVID.”
Bringing together ideas from all involved, Hunter and the band – with additional colors provided by ﬂutist Elena Pinderhughes (Carlos Santana, Taylor McFerrin, Josh Groban) and Brooklyn, NY’s Huntertone Horns (Dan White: Saxophone; Jon Lampley: Trumpet/Sousaphone; Chris Ott: Trombone/Beatbox) – fashioned an assortment of inﬁnitely malleable grooves and extended jams while also conﬁguring covers and other compositions suggested by Elling, providing the singer-songwriter with an extensive cache of material to incorporate his distinctive lyrics and melodies.
Elling took the ball and ran with it, adapting 3x GRAMMY® Award-nominated drummer/composer Nate Smith’s “Bounce” into “Bounce It,” a verbally dexterous, rubber-limbed statement of SuperBlue intent. With its lush, somewhat woozy arrangement, “Little Fairy Carpenter” transforms Hunter’s “A Song For Karen Carpenter” (from his 2008 LP, Baboon Strength) into an aching pop character study examining celebrity and suicidality.
“One of the things that SuperBlue has given me is the freedom in my own creative mind to start a lyric without any obligations to appease anyone,” Elling says. “And Charlie’s ironic frequencies are so attenuated that he’ll go with any crazy thing I write about. That gives me the chance to say, Well, subconscious, what’ve you got in there? Sometimes it’s kind of a little frightening, but I owe it to The Muse to let it play out.”
“I just love the guy’s songwriting,” says Hunter.
Elling has long been a leading proponent of vocalese, an “ongoing quest to bring landmark compositions from the world of instrumental jazz into the realm of vocal possibilities through my work as a lyricist. I’m following in the steps of people like Jon Hendricks and Eddie Jefferson and Annie Ross and really trying to keep that tradition alive.”
Where SuperBlue saw Elling putting lyrics to pieces by Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, and Carla Bley, he now pushes even further with “Only The Lonely Woman,” a ﬁnely limned new narrative to Ornette Coleman’s truly momentous “Lonely
Woman” (from 1959’s The Shape of Jazz To Come). With characteristic emotional acuity, Elling extrapolates upon Coleman’s own inspiration of “a very rich white woman who had absolutely everything that you could desire in life, and she had the most solitary expression in the world” to etch a powerfully detailed portrait of human trafﬁcking, homeless despair, and corrosive isolation
“It’s kind of mind-blowing what he did,” Hunter says. “I can’t think of many people writing lyrics with that kind of scope, really pushing people to get to some thoughtfulness. It’s some different shit, as they say.”
“When I do these things,” Elling says, “I need to pay respect to the history that already exists, the way people hear a composition in their minds, while at the same time putting a new framework on there to assist in the kind of futurist venture that we’re talking about. It starts out as a potentially daunting task, again, because you want to do it ‘right.’ I mean, I’m always striving for the best I can do, but especially so when it comes freighted with such history and tradition.
“I’m so grateful to Denardo Coleman for giving me the go-ahead, for reaching out so kindly in response to my request. And of course I’m so honored and grateful to the spirit of Ornette letting me interact with that music in this peculiarly creative way.”
A preternaturally talented interpreter, Elling has always paired his own imagistic writing alongside the words and music of others. As ever, his selection of material on SuperBlue: The Iridescent Spree spans a panoply of genres and creative disciplines. Here he moves adroitly from Joni Mitchell’s “Black Crow” (ﬁrst performed by Elling alongside Herbie Hancock and the late Wayne Shorter at 2011’s all-star “Joni’s Jazz” concert at Los Angeles, CA’s Hollywood Bowl) to veteran singer-songwriter’s Ron Sexsmith’s “Right About Now,” to an emotionally charged performance of former Poet Laureate of the United States Billy Collins’ dreamlike exploration of what lies beyond, “The Afterlife.” Lest things get too heavy, Elling even offers a distinctively delightful rendition of Bob Dorough’s Schoolhouse Rock! standard, “Naughty Number Nine.”
“When I listen to a record,” Elling says, “I want to hear a broad but coherent array of what an artist is there to do. We do so many serious pieces, I thought we’ve got to have a little bit of levity in there and this was a great way to
do it. I haven’t done a Bob Dorough cover in the past so I’m really happy to tip my hat his way. Bob’s writing is always so clever and ingenious, it’s almost bespoke for this band. And I’ve actually learned my nine-times tables – at last!”
Knitting a cultivated traditionalism with modernist audacity, SuperBlue: The Iridescent Spree both expands and explains its creators’ beloved jazz to an audience potentially unfamiliar with its nuances and its past. “We’re trying to take that history and transform it into something that speaks to a present generation without leaving that history behind,” says Elling. Though it was born as an experimental project, SuperBlue has now bloomed into a tightly meshed unit built for forward motion, the ideal vehicle for Kurt Elling and Charlie Hunter, two utterly idiosyncratic artists relentless in their quest for fresh challenges and new ideas, to celebrate their boundless, all-embracing approach to music, art, and indeed, life itself.
“It’s going to go where it’s going to go,” Charlie Hunter says. “Presumably, it’ll change and grow again.”
“I feel like there’s still room to grow with this project,” says Kurt Elling. “That’s always the prime motivator. That there’s more for me to discover as a writer and as a singer and as a bandleader or co-band leader. We’re going down a road, let’s see how far the road goes.”