Easy Listener: Kurt Elling, Barb Jungr, Colleen McHugh CD Gotta-Haves

The dapper, soul-patched, off-handed Kurt Elling has said in performance, "I was brought up on 4/4 time." That's hardly an unusual influence for a singer, but as he's put his gritty baritone to work over the last couple decades.
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The dapper, soul-patched, off-handed Kurt Elling has said in performance, "I was brought up on 4/4 time." That's hardly an unusual influence for a singer, but as he's put his gritty baritone to work over the last couple decades, he's taken irrepressible liberties with that commonplace signature. So much so there are times when an Elling addict (as anyone must become on a first exposure to him) isn't sure whether the hard-edged jazz crooner isn't now chanting in 17/4 or 29/4 or who-knows-what/4.

On the already Grammy-nominated 1619 Broadway The Brill Building Project (Concord Jazz), Elling frees his inclinations to the kinds of classic Tin Pan Alley numbers spawned either in the edifice he honors in his title or numbers that have been composed in the spirit of the revered Manhattan spot.

With his "On Broadway" opener -- preceded by voices amusingly discouraging a wannabe roaming the 1619 hall -- he acknowledges the alliance of high-royalties teams Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber and Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. His follow-up Come Fly With Me, which Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen probably didn't write on the focal location, gets an interpretation that can be heard not as an invitation to join the singer on a trip to the destinations mentioned in the lyric but, instead, to get as high on the music as he clearly is.

Yes, the entire album -- mostly arranged by him and 18-year-long accompanist Laurence Hobgood soars -- like a multi-colored kite. The range is wide and includes a treatment of Paul Simon's "American Tune" that's a true heart-breaker.

N.B. : Elling is promoting the disk in current gigs during which he unleashes variations on the recorded 1619 Broadway inclusions. Dropping studio conveniences like over-dubbing and the addition of horns to his on-stage four-man band, he substitutes numerous scatting breaks that are drop-dead amazing in their accumulation of diga-diga-dos and the like.


Though Barb Jungr has yet to visit the second town mentioned in the title of her Stockport to Memphis CD (Naim Jazz), she did spend many of her formative years -- including her formative musical years -- in Stockport, just outside of Manchester, England and near where her immigrant parents settled.

If her folks felt the need to leave their Czech-German origins behind out of necessity, Jungr has always felt the need to travel as well, spiritually and literally. And she's done it both ways, as the new release indicates. Her devotion to the Memphis sound and all it implies is the foundation of From Stockport to Memphis.

She wrote the lead-off title song with current collaborator and musical director Simon Wallace and arranged it with him so that the mix of gospel, country and funk for which the metropolis is famous is quickly established. It's maintained throughout by way of four more Jungr-written songs -- three with Wallace, one with Michael, a former collaborator. Every one gets the full benefit of her sometimes sweet, sometimes fervent singing.

Always motivated by a compulsion to find the untried, determinedly unexpected, interpretation of material by composers and lyricists she especially respects, she gives new and trenchant meanings to, among others, Joni Mitchell's River. Sam Cooke's Change is Gonna Come, Tom Waits's Way Down in the Hole, and Lost on the River, a Hank Williams threnody not often talked about when his name comes up.

The Nick Hasted liner notes fill the rapt listener in on the origins of the darkness that's often a mesmerizing element in Jungr's versions. Hasted chronicles the actual travels she's gone on in her efforts to learn the world and then report through music on what she's seen. It's not always a pretty picture, but the joy she regularly takes when performing does work as at least a partial tonic.

Colleen McHugh calls her new CD and matching act Pret-a-Porter (CM). That, however, doesn't guarantee her interpretations of the Cole Porter ditties associated strongly or loosely with the France-obsessed songwriter's Francophile's life will be up to the witty standard implied. But zut alors! It is -- and then some.

Her subtitle is "Cole Porter's French Connection," which is emphasized by the kick-off "I Love Paris," enhanced with additional lyrics written and arranged way back when by Kay Starr and Van Alexander. What immediately segueing to "Let's Misbehave" has to do with France is anybody's guess -- unless the lyric "un peu d'amour" counts. Or maybe it's just the idea that the wine-and-fashion country lends itself to hijinks not endemic elsewhere.

This doesn't matter much one way or the other when the sultry McHugh is backed by musical director Tedd Firth's arrangements and his combo -- Matt Munisteri on guitar, Harry Allen on tenor sax, Steve Doyle on bass, Aaron Weinstein on violin with Firth at his chameleon piano. The ensemble shenanigans are particularly apparent on a musical "Let's Misbehave" detour into Porter's "Let's Do It."

And do it, they sure do. They keep doing it throughout the entire jazz-tinged enterprise, as McHugh explores Porter's words for the much-noted sophistication that always carries a strong soupcon of the sexual double entendre. (Notice that the term "double entendre" is originally French.) And speaking of French, for half the "Night and Day" track, McHugh sings it as "Nuit et Jour." It's a tasty translation she found that isn't overly concerned with Porter's rhyme scheme.

Scan the package and find more than a few credits that go a good way towards explaining its superlative quality. The vocals were produced by no less than Jane Monheit. The engineer was Nola Recording Studio's Jim Czak. Artwork is by Maira Kalman. And there's always the incomparable Firth performing his miracles.

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