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Kurt Elling and Charlie Hunter on the dynamic alchemy of SuperBlue

SuperBlue, with Kurt Elling on vocals and Charlie Hunter on hybrid guitar, at the 2023 Chicago Jazz Festival.
Harvey Willis Photography
SuperBlue, with Kurt Elling on vocals and Charlie Hunter on hybrid guitar, at the 2023 Chicago Jazz Festival.

SuperBlue, initially a long-distance collaboration between vocalist Kurt Elling and hybrid guitarist Charlie Hunter, emerged from pandemic lockdown to become one of this era’s must-see touring bands. Their energy onstage is contagious, as I can attest from the group’s last swing through town, at Ardmore Music Hall last year.

The band has dazzled audiences on four continents, and returns to Philly in the midst of another world tour. SuperBlue also has a new studio album, The Iridescent Spree, which combines original tracks with funky reworkings of songs by Joni Mitchell, Ornette Coleman and Don Was.

Elling and Hunter agreed to chat with WRTI about the new album, their evolving rapport as a live band, and their experience taking a message around the world. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation. And be sure to tune in to Evening Jazz to hear songs from the new album.

You all have enjoyed an inspired association musically since the 1990s, but this iteration was born when everybody was on pause during the pandemic. It’s now a global touring success and a juggernaut of a band. How hard was it to craft the nucleus of what you wanted this second album to be while the band is busy on the road?

Hunter: Actually, I think it kind of was the opposite. With the first record, you know, Corey Fonville and DJ Harrison and I knew each other. We’re doing this thing, but we’re still kind of getting acquainted musically. Two years later, we’re just like, “Count to four and we got this.” We figured that we would do this album the same way as the first one, and because of scheduling stuff with Butcher Brown, it made the most sense for me to go to them in Richmond, Virginia again, and then the three of us just knocked out a ton of instrumental stuff. After that, Kurt came to Montrose studio, and then we started to work on that part of the record. Kurt was ready with all these background ideas and things that he didn’t always get a chance to do in his previous incarnations. With SuperBlue, it kind of became a part of the puzzle. Does that sound about right, Kurt?

Elling: Yeah, we were able to expand stuff a lot more. I mean, also because we were on the road, we could talk about ideas, and we could run possible melodies by each other. We could talk about covers that we might want to do, and play stuff and laugh about it. That’s always as much fun as anything else in the creative process. You don’t want to just show up totally cold to a thing. You want to have some information, have some ideas, but to be able to work it out with your pals while it’s happening. That’s the way you want to do it.

Hunter: And there’s tons of stuff on the cutting room floor as well. So, if Kurt ever wanted to make a record out of all the cutting-room-floor stuff, there’s probably two records worth hanging around — you know, for the next pandemic!

There’s a real healing moment for me at the end of your new record, on a song called “The Afterlife.” I’m thinking about all those we’ve lost in the past two and a half years, and I really thought it was a great choice that you all did something in tribute. But I don’t want to get too much in your head. I want you to tell me about the poem and this iteration of it.

Elling: Oh, wow! You know what? You’re bringing up a whole aspect I hadn’t even thought of. The stuff that Charlie, Corey, and Devon put down is very evocative, and I was just following up on the thing that they made. And then, you know, it’s up to me to look around and find either a melody or something to say, or something to sing that’s tailor-made or appropriate in response to that. When I came across that poem, “The Afterlife,” I said, “That's kind of cool. Let me try that out.” I thought it ended up working out great. I think it was the first take. I just read it once. As with so many things that happen in the studio, when it comes to the creative process, there’s a lot of intuition, and the thing feels right, and it sounds right. It’s got something cool to say, but I hadn’t even thought about the deeper, broader context that you’re bringing up.

It’s a real gem of a tune. And then, conversely, what about a song like “Black Crow?” I don’t know if I’d call myself a Joni Mitchell aficionado, but I paid close attention to those late-‘70s albums when she started making her own genre with improvisers. When approaching a tune like that, how much do you stick to what was there, and how much license do you take?

Elling: Anytime you take a thing — if it’s Joni, or if it’s Duke Ellington, or if it’s any of the jazz people that we revere — if the idea is substantial enough, and you feel right about it, then you play it to the best of your ability. Then again, there’s this whole intuitive thing and the technique, but when it comes to creative decision-making, it just seems to me like the best idea is apparent. Joni wrote great lyrics, and she had cool chord changes. The melody and the whole situation lent itself to what our project is, and I just tossed it over to Charlie and said, “Do you think this is a good enough idea?” And he says, “Yeah,” and I’ll say, “How do you want to do it?” And then we’ll try it. If there’s anything that needs to be fixed, it is clear, and you fix it, or you play it a different way. Charlie, am I wrong?

Charlie Hunter and Kurt Elling performing with SuperBlue at the 2023 Newport Jazz Festival.
Jonathan Chimene
Charlie Hunter and Kurt Elling performing with SuperBlue at the 2023 Newport Jazz Festival.

Hunter: No, you’re right. With us, it’s always that the best idea wins, and we don’t overthink s—t. It is what it is, you know? And Kurt will give us a key, and he’ll give us a tempo, so that he can get the lyrics out on things. I mean, really the hardest thing would be Kurt’s backgrounds, because they’re the very last thing that we do. Immediately your ear goes to vocals, right? At that point, it’s like: “Okay, well, here’s where the real fine motor skills stuff happens.” You know what I mean?

Absolutely. In concert, you all have enlisted three fantastic drummers on different tours. One is Nate Smith, and another we’ve been talking about is Corey Fonville, who plays on the new record. The third is Marcus Finnie. Could you tell us about these drummers and what they’ve added to help the band come across to the audiences who witness the live show? 

Hunter: Well, everyone has their own thing. They’re all on this stupendously high level of musicianship, you know. Marcus’ attention to detail is kind of otherworldly. I think he must have a photographic memory or something, and his ear harmonically is so good — like, probably better than mine. We’re a great team. And, you know, Corey and me and DJ, Corey’s got this whole other grooving and amazing thing that he does. And, of course, Nate Smith is Nate Smith! You know, everyone is, if I can say, funky and creative as f—k, but each person has their own aesthetic that they bring to it. And I’m happy any way you slice it!

Elling: I mean, we’re talking about three remarkably gifted, hardworking, and unique drummers. The whole band sort of shifts toward them as they each have their own magnetism. They’re all such beautiful cats on the road. It’s such a pleasure to be out with this band, because we all like each other. I have a no-a—hole policy on the road. You must be righteous. You must be ready. We all support each other. We’re out here together, and when you’re on the road, it’s your family. So, onstage and off, this is just a stellar unit.

I’m listening to the band’s version of “Lonely Woman,” originally by Ornette Coleman — and not being a lyric writer, sometimes I wonder: is the story always in the title? What is the best way to craft a story for something that is instrumental, to give it linear form or nonlinear form?

Elling: I do try to start with a reference or a touchpoint to the title that the original composer made, because there’s a reason that person gave it that title. It’s a launching pad, and it’s important for me as a lyricist. What is that idea? It could mean a hundred shades to a hundred different lyricists. My own way, most of the time, is just to start writing. I feel like I’m trying to translate from one language to another, especially with horns. You can do that because horn players’ sound has consonants and vowels. You can hear that implied, much more than you can with a piano or a bass or anything else. So I try to follow up on it in the right way, and then I must make this stuff rhyme, where the melody rhymes with itself.

It’s hard work to get it right, and then your intuition tells you when it is at least as good as it can be, for your ability. I hope that over the years my ability has grown, and that I’ve learned the kind of dumb mistakes not to make as a writer, and to also not be too penned in by the expectation. If the work is good enough, then the original artist is going to like it. And that’s what happened, you know, so many times with the stuff I wrote for Wayne Shorter, or Herbie Hancock, or Freddie Hubbard. You can’t get all hung up on “These guys are giants, and you’re not a giant,” because I already know that. I already know I’m doing aftermarket stuff to works of genius and perfection. To try to sing any of this stuff, anyway, is already some chutzpah. But Jon Hendricks taught me how to do a thing, and the great jazz lyricists, they’re the guys that had the temerity because they started doing a thing that nobody had done before. So, for me to come along — I’m honoring Jon, and now, I’m trying to honor Ornette. We must run everything by the estate or by the composer, and Denardo Coleman, his son, told us, “I’ve never said yes to somebody writing to this, but you and these cats made such a cool thing out of it. I like it, and I think Ornette would like it, so I’m going to say yes!” So in the final analysis, I am very humbled and moved when the families say yes. I just continue to go down that road and try to honor that.

Hunter: And as a footnote, we took a big chance, because we worked a lot on that tune before we got clearance to use it. To me, that tune is really a duet between Corey and Kurt. Corey, to me, is just like an underground funk ninja assassin that’s so creative. I don’t know how much more jazz you would want. You know?

I have not had the pleasure to travel abroad since the pandemic, and I’m wondering how you both are feeling, being Americans traveling internationally and seeing the audiences and meeting some of them. How is it touring abroad, given the state of where everything is politically, socially, environmentally, and health-wise?

Hunter: I won’t get into the weeds on this politically, because we’ve all had these conversations. You know how much Kurt and all of us research this stuff, and how involved and aware we are as citizens. Let me put it that way, when we go and we do this, I feel like we’re ambassadors for what we do right. We get to go and interact with people from all over the world, the way we should be interacting with people all over the world. That’s what I’ll say. Kurt, what do you think? Am I wrong?

Elling: No, dude, I think you’re spot on. Everybody’s been hungry to get out and hear some blazing music, and we’re doing our best to provide that. The peaceful warrior thing is real, and we’re out there together as a team. We love each other, and we love on the audience, and they love on us back. We’re just out there hitting it as hard as we can. I mean, you know, you’ve seen how many dates we’re playing this year. We’re going to ride that out, man.

SuperBlue performs this Saturday at World Cafe Live; tickets and information.

Greg Bryant has been a longtime curator of improvisational music as a broadcaster, writer, host and musician. As a young child, he began absorbing the artistry of Miles Davis, Les McCann, Jimmy Smith, James Brown, Ornette Coleman, Weather Report, and Jimi Hendrix via his parent's record collection. He was so moved by what he was experiencing that he took pride in relaying all of his discoveries with anyone who would listen.