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Hear Kurt Elling, Charlie Hunter and Nate Smith get their boogie down, off the 'Guilty Pleasures' EP

Edition Records

Kurt Elling was a study in blur — rubber limbs, wolfish grin, the whole nine — as he paced the stage at Ardmore Music Hall last May. He was throwing down with guitarist Charlie Hunter, his co-pilot in SuperBlue, a groove-forward outfit then touring behind its self-titled debut on Edition. As on that 2021 release, they were joined by keyboardist DJ Harrison and drummer Corey Fonville, a twin-engine motor in perpetual overdrive.

The set list that spring evening included grooving originals like "Dharma Bums" and retrofitted fare like "Sassy," the Manhattan Transfer's nod to Sarah Vaughan. If memory serves, they also ventured a cover of an old classic by Al Jarreau: "Boogie Down," the second track off his Warner Bros. album Jarreau, which was released 40 years ago.

In any case, Elling and Hunter are now sharing a studio version of that tune — the latest single off Guilty Pleasures, the digital EP they made with drummer Nate Smith, due out on Edition on Feb. 17. WRTI is proud to premiere the track before its release this Friday.

Nate Chinen
SuperBlue, jointly led by Kurt Elling and Charlie Hunter, at Ardmore Music Hall in May 2022.

Mixed with drums and vocals way out front, so that they seem to leap out of your speakers, the track highlights a side of Elling that doesn't get nearly enough attention. When folks talk about his place in the jazz-vocal lineage, they often rightly note the moves he copped from Jon Hendricks and Mark Murphy — but don't always mention Jarreau, a springier and more slithery influence. The lightbulb went off for me in 2006, when Jarreau and Elling appeared on an episode of Ramsey Lewis' Legends in Jazz.

Among the sterling highlights of their exchange was a spirited duo on Paul Desmond's "Take Five," performed a cappella at first, and then with Elling's rhythm section at the time. (At one point Jarreau spontaneously cues another modulation, like a quarterback calling audibles.) From that moment on, Elling's bond with Jarreau was something I could see clearly, without squinting; when they would appear side-by-side on an International Jazz Day concert, say, I could recognize them as kindred spirits.

That's as true on a synth-pop jam like "Boogie Down" as it is on swinging fare. Jarreau co-wrote the tune with Michael Omartian, who manned the synthesizers and created the rhythm arrangements on the tune. (The only organic instrumentation on the track comes courtesy of the Jerry Hey horns, fresh off a Grammy for their work on Toto's "Rosanna.") For kicks, here's the music video, set during an album-cover photo shoot.

Elling's take on "Boogie Down" doesn't make a point of departure; he has Jarreau clear in his sights, secure enough in his own identity not to sweat the similarities. His style is his own, and the backdrop — whip-smart shuffle by Smith, burbling syncopation from Hunter — could only come out of the SuperBlue matrix. Boogie is their business.

Guilty Pleasures will be released on Edition Records on Feb. 17; preorder here.

Nate Chinen has been writing about music for more than 25 years. He spent a dozen of them working as a critic for The New York Times, and helmed a long-running column for JazzTimes. As Editorial Director at WRTI, he oversees a range of classical and jazz coverage, and contributes regularly to NPR.