Kurt Elling & Charlie Hunter’s ‘Superblue’: a case of dual sheer artistry

by Andra Jackson

It was a double thrill when US singer Kurt Elling unveiled his new musical direction at Bird’s Basement last night (ed.note: on Tuesday 22 August.) The audience was treated to Elling’s distinctive, creative vocalese while those vocals were punctuated by the scintillating lyrical embellishments of guitarist Charlie Hunter as well as his masterful solos. It was a case of dual sheer artistry.

Elling is best known in Australia — from his regular visits pre-COVID — for his jazz sensibility, crafting words to jazz solos or scatting wordlessly like an instrument.

But during COVID, he forged a new direction in collaboration with guitarist Charlie Hunter. They are in Australia to promote their new album SuperBlue: The Iridescent Spree.

As evident last night, Elling’s new direction embraces blues, funk, and a dose of soul. It is a blend that — thanks to dynamite drummer Marcus Finnie and wiz keyboardist Kenny Banks Jr. — is high on groove. Except for a ballad number, this was infectious music that had feet tapping and listeners grooving along in their seats.

Over a range of songs that included compositions from pianist Carla Bley, saxophonist Ornette Coleman, and many others, Elling dived into the deepest recesses of his vocal range while gliding effortlessly back into a falsetto range.

He performed a riveting soul-dripping rendition of Baby Hold On.

The multi-Grammy winning singer not only delivered some amusing spoken monologues about such themes as time, but also provided an unusual meeting of scatting and funk.

Perhaps the best example was his exhaustive scatting exchange with drummer Finnie coming up with different wordless syllables to challenge the drummer rhymically or to match him in unison.

This is a band big on musical conversations and one such exchange between Elling and Banks was an engrossing display of jive talkin’.

Others of the many highlights included a fiery drum solo from Finnie and Hunter’s throbbing bass that darted into lyrical lead guitar territory simultaneously.

Hunter’s thrilling guitar solos evoked much vocal appreciation from the audience, including — I swear — a scream from one enthusiastic woman.

After one of Hunter’s displays of skill and inventiveness, Elling quipped “and there’s not a dry seat in the house.”

Kurt Elling and Charlie Hunter (and band) are performing at Bird’s Basement until and including Saturday 26 August.

They then perform in Sydney at the City Recital Hall on Wednesday 30 August.