Kurt Elling – SuperBlue
(Edition EDN1174. Album Review by John Bungey)
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Kurt Elling has been busy turning himself into the male jazz vocalist of our times. In March he won his second Grammy for the elegant and original Secrets are the Best Stories. Now the master of bebop, skat and neo soul has taken a left turn. SuperBlue is a funk and beats-fuelled record that you can dance to. Either that or you can stand in the corner decoding the hipster humour (“Are you a brick house or a brick?”) and wordplay (“Manic Panic Epiphanic”).
In the engine room are keyboardist DJ Harrison and drummer Corey Fonville from hip-hop/groove merchants Butcher Brown. Charlie Hunter produces and plays the sleek guitar fills. Elling takes on the vocal work of four singing Manhattan Transfer’s Sassy; Circus, one of Tom Waits’s stranger tales, earns a James Brown-style backing track; there’s a second soul-ballad take on Carla Bley’s Endless Lawns (a version appeared on Elling’s 2017 album, The Questions).
The rhythm section here is slippery perfection. The title track motors along on a groove worthy of Sly Stone. Where to Find It, floating in over a hypnotic bass riff and hand drums, is a stand-out.
However, this is a Covid-era album on which the drum and bass tracks were recorded a thousand miles away before the vocalist got to hear them. And for all their slinky charm – and the work Elling has put into his lyrics – there’s something missing: great funk tunes need a powerful hook or a chorus you’ll remember. And there are few of either.
Take Can’t Make It With Your Brain (with that “brick house/brick” line). It’s the story of the hook-up from hell; if only more time had been spent working up a decent tune to support the engagingly grisly story. The cool strut of Dharma Bums recalls late Steely Dan (Babylon Sisters) but you wait for the killer chorus in vain. And like the Dan’s very last works SuperBlue can seem a little too knowing and self-consciously oddball.
Of course, great artists should take risks and by all accounts, heard live, the band’s energy and Elling’s vocal prowess win the day. But encountered on the home hi-fi, SuperBlue seems less than the sum of its carefully assembled parts.
Categories: Album reviews