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Kurt Elling had never met the members of Butcher Brown before he stepped on stage with two of them — producer/keyboardist Devonne Harris (a.k.a. DJ Harrison) and drummer Corey Fonville — in their hometown of Richmond, Virginia, in late June. Though he’d known and worked sporadically with guitarist Charlie Hunter over a span of more than 20 years, they were suddenly faced with debuting a brand-new set of material in an untested quartet format in front of a live audience.
Fortunately, the band had one key advantage: They’d already recorded an album together.
Well, not exactly together, as Elling points out over the phone from his home in Chicago a couple of days later. “Once again I’m kind of doing things bass ackwards,” he laughs, thrilled and a bit relieved that the set had gone so well. “This was not a jazz way to make a record. It was a COVID way. It’s a whole new bag for me, which is cool. It was a great creative challenge.”
Pandemics make strange bedfellows, as it turns out, even as they keep people separated. As life begins to take on a semblance of normality following a universally strange year of quarantines and political turmoil, Elling has emerged with SuperBlue (Edition), an album that marks a funky, backbeat-driven departure for the Grammy-winning singer, who’s eternally on the hunt for new places to steer his hip sensibilities.
As Elling indicates, SuperBlue was not created in the traditional way. Over a pair of weekends last October, Hunter joined Harris and Fonville at Harris’ Richmond home studio, Jellowstone, with little in the way of planning or preparation. The trio laid down a series of grooves and tracks and forwarded those to Elling. Over the next few months, the singer searched through the raw material for inspiration for melodies and lyrics, then met with Hunter in February at a studio in Urbana, Illinois, to complete the album.
“It was a way to collaborate in a new sphere during a weird time,” Elling explains. “I was just thrilled that I had an outlet for writing, and I knew that I was going to come out of COVID with a very different-sounding thing.”
“The pandemic was a hell of a thing,” Hunter concludes. “All kinds of shit got shuffled up and thrown out on the table and ended up in different configurations than anyone was expecting or intending.”
Where Elling ended up during the pandemic was back in his native Chicago. After a dozen years in New York, the move had been a long time coming for a variety of reasons both musical and personal.
“My wife and I had only planned on being in New York for six months or a year,” the 53-year-old singer says. “Twelve years later, there we were, still having a ball. But the [Chicago] grandparents aren’t getting any younger, and we wanted our son to be able to be around them while he was still at his beautiful, youthful best. And my daughter got into a great arts high school here. Then, with the COVID thing, I was thinking, ‘Where can I be that maybe I can help out a little bit somehow?’ [Most of the musicians] in my regular working band are here, so at least we could get together and figure out some way to make some music, get it out to people and continue to communicate with the audience that’s been kind and patient enough to give me their attention all this time.”
The first answer he devised was a series of “Porch Concerts” streamed from his home to audiences across the internet (and, in a more limited capacity, across his front lawn). In the fall, he moved into the famed Green Mill, the club with which Elling became synonymous early in his career. For his short run of “Saturday Night at the Green Mill” concerts, which raised money for the shuttered venue, he hosted special guests including Makaya McCraven, Lizz Wright, Marquis Hill and Nate Smith, as well as a pared-down performance of his jazz radio play, The Big Blind.
“You know, if the world’s gonna go to hell, then I want to be home and help my burg survive,” Elling continues. “I want to be shooting from inside of this fort. Obviously I can’t save anything. But let me at least put my shoulder to the wheel in the right town. This is my town and it’s my home. Just knowing that we could get any sort of musical message out to kind ears was really salvific.”
When we spoke in June, COVID restrictions had largely been lifted or eased across the country and live performances in front of flesh-and-blood audiences had resumed. While he’s excited about being back in front of people, Elling remains cautious and insists that the experience has been, like so much of his life in music, a learning experience.
“You learn stuff all the time,” he says. “I learned that it’s more important for me to just be singing at all, in collaboration with other musicians, than performing as such. Psychically, I just need to be on it. It’s a survival mechanism. It’s a way of justifying the day. And I if I’ve got to pretend that there’s an audience there, I’ve got 25 years of the faces of my audience in my mind.”
That desire for collaboration led Elling to reach out to Hunter, among a host of other artists, for his regular lockdown webcasts. The two had first met in the late ’90s, when both were signed to Blue Note Records. While they were labelmates, Elling guested on a pair of tracks on Hunter’s 2001 quartet outing Songs From the Analog Playground. “We were a couple of young bucks trying to make it happen,” Elling recalls. “I’ve always thought Charlie’s thing was pretty awesome and fun and cool. Obviously we’ve been in slightly different music silos, but we like each other personally.”
In purely technical terms, Hunter’s “thing” is a unique approach to the instrument in which he undertakes both the guitar and bass parts via a hybrid eight-string axe. But more crucially, it’s a deeply groove-oriented, loose-limbed funk that’s as playfully inventive as it is window-rattlingly soulful.
“Through the years, we’ve passed in and out of each other’s orbits,” the 54-year-old Hunter says. “Kurt really brings it, you know, very strong. He’s willing to just go for it, which is such a blast.”
The pair next crossed paths about a decade later, when they embarked on a brief European tour as a trio with drummer Derek Phillips — “Just as a lark,” Elling says. “It was an experiment to have some fun.” When they reconvened once again last summer, albeit long distance and in front of only a virtual audience, something about the combination felt right for the moment, in Elling’s view. When Hunter suggested collaborating with the younger, hip-hop-oriented Butcher Brown, Elling leapt at the chance.
Formed in the late 2000s from the eclectic scene surrounding Virginia Commonwealth University, Butcher Brown began creating buzz throughout the ’10s with a series of independent releases that juggled jazz, hip-hop, R&B, rock and funk in exhilarating, original fashion. The band found a wider audience last year when Concord released their major label debut, #KingButch, followed this summer by the five-track EP Encore. Hunter was already a fan when he first shared the stage with Fonville at the 2016 Montreal Jazz Festival; the drummer was performing in his role as a member of trumpeter Christian Scott’s band, which had invited Hunter as its special guest.
“When Christian mentioned on the microphone, ‘Corey has a band called Butcher Brown,’ Charlie looked at me like, ‘Oh, shit, that’s you!’” Fonville remembers. “It kind of got his wheels spinning, so we exchanged info and said it would be dope to work on some stuff one day. Butcher Brown are all big fans of Charlie. I’ve been following him for a long time — he’s on Voodoo by [Richmond-born soul icon] D’Angelo. So when Charlie called me about the idea, I was already down just because Charlie was involved.”
“I wanted to play with the Butcher guys because I just love their whole scene and their family culture up there,” says the Greensboro, North Carolina-based Hunter. “So I went up there and Corey and DJ Harrison and I just flowed and came up with a bunch of tunes. It ended up being pretty damn cool.”
Elling sent Hunter to Richmond with only a few requests. He wanted to revisit “Endless Lawns,” his lyric written to Carla Bley’s “Lawns,” which he’d originally recorded on 2018’s landmark album The Questions. He also suggested Wayne Shorter’s “Aung San Suu Kyi,” the band’s take on which becomes “Where To Find It” with the addition of Elling’s new lyric and the interpolation of a poem by Chase Twichell.
Beyond that, Hunter, Fonville and Harris were largely left to their own devices. “We got ideas from Kurt about what key ranges he liked and that sort of thing,” Hunter explains. “But then we were just like, ‘Fuck it, we are who we are, let’s just play what we play.’ The three of us could probably improvise that kind of stuff all night.”
The fact that the tracks they were laying down would become songs with lyrics once Elling got his hands on them couldn’t help but shape the music in some ways. But according to the trio, it didn’t impinge much once they got rolling. “On top of trying to fit into Charlie’s and Corey’s spaces, I also had to leave space for the vocals to have room to breathe,” Harris says. “But Charlie was steering the ship. And he just wanted to walk in and see where we could take this thing. He really left the energy open to all of us to try to find the vibe and if it feels good, let’s pursue it.”
There was also a generational divide to bridge, though Fonville indicates that Hunter was the intermediary between Butcher Brown and Elling in that regard in much the same way that he was in more practical matters. “Charlie’s older than us — he’s not a peer — but we speak the same language and we view music pretty much the same way. We don’t like to stress. We want to have fun. It’s all about making it feel good first. What was most important with Kurt was to not have him try to change who he is. We weren’t trying to make him sound young, like the guy’s having a midlife crisis. But he’s so deep into who he is, that wasn’t the vibe.”
Elling not only wrote new lyrics to fit with the music that Hunter and the Butcher Brown bandmates crafted, but discovered novel ways to fit pre-existing material to their infectious grooves. One piece, he found, was a perfect fit for The Manhattan Transfer’s Sarah Vaughan tribute, “Sassy,” which comes in for a Headhunters-style reimagining. Another piece wasn’t well suited for lyrics but became the bed for a spoken-word reading of Tom Waits’ surreal carny narrative, “Circus.”
With the subtraction of the space between the two words, “SuperBlue” turns the title track from Freddie Hubbard’s 1978 classic into a hipster stream of consciousness, a psychedelic excursion into “mental tissue” and the “psychic undersea.” In approaching Shorter’s “Aung San Suu Kyi,” Elling opted to ignore the composition’s original inspiration, as the Burmese leader was no longer quite the inspiring figure she’d been when the piece was written in 1997. Instead, the singer decided to celebrate Shorter’s own position as a spiritual leader.
“The guy’s a Bodhisattva,” Elling declares. “The messages that he’s broadcasting in his melodies and in his solo spaces are very profound. So I asked myself, ‘What’s the Bodhisattva got to say? Where are you going to find enlightenment?’ Well, you’re going to find it everywhere. You find it in confusion, you find it in chaos. You just trip over it. So I was able to write a lyric about that and then used Chase Twichell’s poem like a crosscut that reveals even more of the message that’s perhaps a little more inscrutable in what I’ve written.”
In essence, SuperBlue is a singular melding of its creators’ respective sensibilities, a fascinating patchwork that likely only exists because of the unique circumstances of its birth. Would Butcher Brown ever have commingled with the Steely Dan and Kerouac inspirations of Dharma Bums without crossing paths with Hunter and Elling? Would the singer’s optimism have found expression in the Earth Wind & Fire-like harmonies of “Manic Panic Epiphanic” without the taut grooves laid down by the band? Who else but Elling would draw the line between the blistering funk of the tune that became “Circus” and the stream-of-consciousness eccentricities of Tom Waits and Ken Nordine?
“I continue to like my older dead guys,” Elling admits, “the influences that are in my subconscious that come from the jazz world. But now there’s a way for me to push that stuff into something that sounds hyper current, which is what Charlie and the Butcher Brown guys are playing.”
“I was really only familiar with Kurt as a legendary vocalist in the jazz world,” Harris says. “Recording this album was a ‘pinch me, I’m dreaming’ moment, but it’s refreshing to hear him in this different vibe. It pushed my limits, but I think Kurt would say it also pushed him into someplace different than he’s used to.”
In some ways, SuperBlue serves as a mirror-image companion piece to Elling’s previous release, the Grammy-winning Secrets Are the Best Stories. A collaboration with pianist Danilo Pérez, the album confronted the harsh realities of the Trump era head-on. Pieces like “Song of the Rio Grande,” with a new Elling lyric set to Pérez’s “Across the Crystal Sea,” seethed with barely contained anger as they railed against the country’s economic and social divides, concluding, “America, you’ve lost your mind.”
SuperBlue doesn’t shy away from those issues, or the travails of a year lost to a badly mishandled pandemic response. But in keeping with the music’s spirited funk sound, the approach is far more lighthearted. Musically and thematically, SuperBlue offers a refreshingly hopeful and humorous twist on its predecessor’s ideas.
“I’m looking for a jolt of hope from the music I want to hear coming out of this pandemic,” Elling explains. “‘Man, the news is frightening, but everything is cool.’ That’s an important message to have. We’ve all lived through this thing — not just the pandemic, but the summer of protests and the recognition, at last, among a larger amount of our current population of the pain that minorities have been suffering for centuries in America. I tried to grapple with the angrier or uglier elements on [Secrets Are the Best Stories]. I didn’t want to do that again. I needed to be more hopeful and I needed to get my head out of that space and enjoy myself a little bit.”
Compare, for example, the song “Stays” from Secrets with the new album’s “Can’t Make It With Your Brain.” Both deal with misjudged appearances and surprise discoveries upon making a stranger’s acquaintance. But “Stays” — a lyric penned to the music of Wayne Shorter’s “Go” — is somber and reflective. In it, Elling describes a (fictional) neighbor in his apartment building who seems to hide behind his door each time Elling comes home. It’s only after a fire forces them onto the street and into each other’s company that it’s revealed that Elling resembles the SS soldier who’d taken the man’s family away during World War II.
“Can’t Make It With Your Brain” is something else entirely, a hilarious take on our current Body Snatchers reality, when any co-worker or family member might suddenly be revealed as a conspiracy nut whose politics fail to align with our own, to say the least. The song takes theform of a dance-floor banger with a wry Mose Allison twist, as the singer’s eyes lock on a sexy young woman from across the room. The hook-up turns bad, however, when her pick-up line involves being a QAnon supporter. “That was a challenge to figure out,” Elling says with a chuckle. “Like, can I really get away with this?”
Such personal challenges, stretching to discover what more he can achieve with his artistry, feels central to Elling’s music, whether he plants his tongue in his cheek or not. It’s certainly why he’s chosen such distinctive collaborators, each one of whom has their own well-defined identity to contend with — not only Pérez and Hunter, but also Branford Marsalis, with whom he’s worked on two albums: Marsalis’ quartet release Upward Spiral and his own The Questions, for which the saxophonist served as producer.
“I feel like that’s always been part and parcel of what it is,” Elling says. “It’s kind of like you’re making dinner and everybody brings something to the table. As the guy who’s incredibly fortunate to be in the driver’s seat, it’s up to me to figure out what we make out of this stuff.”
At least since The Questions, it seems that Elling’s recipes involve deep, searching explorations of issues both profoundly personal and sweepingly global. He hasn’t forsaken that approach on SuperBlue, he’s simply chanced upon a way to make it incredibly funky and a hell of a lot of fun.
“I wanted to point toward the other side of the coin,” Elling says. “We’re still here for another day, so we have another opportunity to make things right. We have another chance to show compassion and to keep on stepping toward the highest good. We have another chance to make more music. So let’s do that.” - Shaun Brady