Kurt Elling didn’t meet two of the members of his band SuperBlue until after their first record was finished.
Yes, this is another pandemic story.
SuperBlue combines the talents of two jazz greats: Grammy-winning vocalist Kurt Elling and guitar wizard Charlie Hunter, plus bassist/keyboardist DJ Harrison and drummer Corey Fonville, both of whom are members of the versatile jazz/rock/funk/hip-hop outfit Butcher Brown.
The group came together as a cure for the ennui-plagued pandemic period when, Elling says, “I was sitting at home like everybody else and losing my mind.”
Hunter had been posting music clips on Instagram and he tagged Elling on a couple of them. Elling added vocals to the clips, put them online as well, and eventually, a full-blown album project was born.
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“From that came the idea, ‘If we can get 30 seconds at a time done, we can get a whole record done,” Elling says.
Hunter engaged the services of his friends Harrison and Fonville and went into a Virginia studio — masked and socially distanced, of course — to record the instrumental tracks. They sent them to Elling in Chicago, where he wrote melodies and lyrics, added his vocals and did some editing. Thus was born SuperBlue the band as well as its self-titled 2021 album.
But in terms of getting together with Harrison and Fonville, Elling says with a laugh, “I didn’t even meet those cats until the record was completely mixed and mastered and turned in. It’s crazy.”
Since that time, a pair of EPs have followed: 2022’s “The London Sessions” and this year’s “Guilty Pleasures,” a wildly eclectic collection of funked-up cover songs ranging from Eddie Money’s “Baby Hold On” to Al Jarreau’s “Boogie” to AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.”
In September, there will be a new album, “SuperBlue: The Iridescent Spree.” The single “Not Here/Not Now” is already online.
For Elling, a vocalist renowned for his vocal range and innovative approach to jazz classics and original material alike, SuperBlue scratches a couple of creative itches.
“It’s such a relief, after all that nail-biting stuff over COVID to be able to just sing real loud with a smoking band and get out there and take some risks,” Elling says. “I’m always thrilled to be learning. I want to be in a room where everybody’s a lot smarter than I am and I have stuff to figure out based on what they’re bringing to the table. (SuperBlue) is one of those ways for me to do it.”
Hunter more than fulfills the “smart” requirement.
“He’s done so much historical research into the art of guitar playing, which is evidenced every time he picks up the axe,” Elling says. “And he knows what he likes and what he doesn’t like.”
And what does he like?
“The beat has got to be phat,” Elling says. “The bass has to be bangin’. And don’t get too weird. Not too many notes. And let’s do it.”
Hunter, an astonishingly gifted player who has mastered eight- and seven-string guitars, as well as conventional six-strings, has made dozens of albums as a band leader or co-leader and has worked with artists including D’Angelo, John Mayer, Frank Ocean, Snarky Puppy and even Beat author William S. Burroughs.
While Harrison and Fonville round out the band on the albums and the “London” EP, Elling and Hunter are joined by drummer Nate Smith on “Guilty Pleasures.”
Jazz musicians have hectic schedules so sometimes Elling and Hunter are accompanied by drummer Marcus Finnie. The new album features appearances by others — the Huntertones Horns and flutist Elena Pinderhughes — as well.
“We’re trying to think of this as a constellation of collaborators,” Elling says.
The forthcoming “Iridescent Spree” is a mix of originals such as “Not Here/Not Now” and covers including Joni Mitchell’s “Black Crow,” Ron Sexsmith’s “Right About Now” and a selection out of deep left field: Bob Dorough’s “Naughty Number Nine.”
Yes, that’s a “Schoolhouse Rock” song. But it’s a great song, period, and also a reminder that it’s never too late to learn your multiplication tables.
“Bob was a great genius and a thrillingly accessible, lovely, generous artist of remarkable proportions,” Elling says. “To be able to tip my hat in a bunch of directions is always a part of my program.”