(Ronnie Scotts, 21 September 2021. Fourth and final night of residency. First set. Review by Lavender Sutton)
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It’s no longer surprising that each album Kurt Elling puts out shows a completely different side of him if you follow his career. Each new record is a completely different take on a slightly different sub-genre of jazz from his collaboration with Ernie Watts on their Johnny Hartman/ John Coltrane tribute, or his last project with Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez.
This time, SuperBlue is a dive into the world of hip hop. And at first thought, it seems like an unlikely success. Elling is known for his powerful voice and the way he can transform poetry into lyrical reverie. And he is hip – he follows confidently in the footsteps of Eddie Jefferson and Jon Hendricks in writing his own lyrics to bebop instrumental solos. But, something about collaborating with guitarist Charlie Hunter and the rhythm section of the jazz fusion band Butcher Brown might initially seem a little incongruous.
Hunter is known for playing 7 and 8 string guitars and most famously for playing on D’Angelo’s VooDoo album. His connection to Elling comes from their days signed to Blue Note Records. Having always wanted to work together on something, ‘lockdown’ allowed the two to finally make good on the promise to collaborate. Hunter also had a association with the guys from Butcher Brown. Organist DJ Harrison and drummer Corey Fonville were brought in to work on the project and the four worked together to produce the album remotely.
When finally they’re allowed to return to touring and get to bring this new project to Ronnie’s for a four-day stint, these guys were pumped. Maybe they’ve only met a handful of times and the audience is still a bit nervous being out in full club for the first time in a while, but the buzz on the stage as they sink into the first groove calms everybody’s nerves.
Joined by two backing vocalists, established Ronnie’s crew, Vula Malinga and LaDonna Harley Peters, they brought the richness of vocal production that is present on the album to the stage. They match Elling’s charisma and it becomes clear rather quickly that the performance aspect of SuperBlue is what brings these songs to life. The audience starts responding to Elling’s story-telling, his comedy and his musical prowess.
The lyrics to the the song Manic Panic Epiphanic have a soft approach, reminding everyone that the world has been a tough place for the last eighteen months. A nod to the spiritual hymn “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands”, Elling is trying to put things into perspective in a gentle way.
Conversely, Can’t Make It With Your Brain is a comical take on meeting someone who may ‘look the part’ but ends up being a lot less inspiring than hoped. He struts around the stage to Hunter’s funky lick, depicting the feeling we’ve all had upon meeting someone who’s just not quite on our own intellectual level. Fonville’s drum solo is simple yet intricate – his rhythmic commentary fits perfectly with the nature of the song.
Harrison is so laid back on the organ, you almost don’t notice his phat sound, his thoughtful solos and his responses to the rest of the rhythm section. Hunter’s solos are reflective yet assertive, and it’s obvious why Elling would want to co-produce an album with him. It’s clear he’s having the best time as he head-bobs along to every song. All three have a deep connection and a relaxed stage manner that the audience picks up on. Elling makes sure to engage with each of them at one point or another and even joins in a scat battle with Fonville. It’s thrilling to hear them try to copy each other’s rhythmic ideas and we’re reminded of how brave Elling is on stage.
By the end, the audience are on their feet, clapping along. Everyone is in awe of the combined musicality of these guys – hip hop royalty, with a sprinkling of soulful sweetness and award-winning vocals – it seals the deal that seeing SuperBlue live is the best way to appreciate it.
Categories: Live reviews