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Kurt Elling and Charlie Hunter emerge from lockdown with the ultimate groove elixir: SuperBlue

Kurt Elling and Charlie Hunter in Richmond, Va., for the live debut of Superblue.
Keshia Eugene
Kurt Elling and Charlie Hunter in Richmond, Va., for the live debut of Superblue.

Last year, in the thick of pandemic lockdown, an exalted jazz vocalist and an eminent groove guitarist forged a partnership from a distance. Kurt Elling, the singer, had been seeking fresh connection at a time of disorienting distance from the bandstand. He found it with Charlie Hunter, the hybrid guitarist, who brought in a couple of younger firebrands from the Richmond, Va. funk collective Butcher Brown.

What came out of this alignment was SuperBlue, an album on Edition Records — and also a band that has since found traction on tour. The album places Hunter’s dynamic and groove-fueled vitality in dialogue with drummer Corey Fonville and multi-instrumentalist DJ Harrison (who concentrates here on keyboards.) Those three musicians gathered as a pandemic pod in Richmond to flesh out new ideas and execute arrangements for Elling’s choice of cover songs. After trading suggestions and firming up structures, their final jams were adorned with his vocals at sessions in Champaign, Ill. The results are undeniably exciting, with a pocket so deep that it commands instant foot-tapping and head-nodding.

On this episode of Jazz United, we peer under the hood of SuperBlue, with a special attention to the mechanics of groove; reminisce about our separate relationships with Elling and Hunter’s music, going back to 1995; and hear from both artists about their collaboration. Greg also shares impressions from the first SuperBlue tour, which he caught at BRIC Jazzfest (with the jaw-dropping Nate Smith filling in for Fonville) — a performance that nudged Elling away from the precedent of Mark Murphy or Eddie Jefferson, and more toward the incendiary spirit of Johnny “Guitar” Watson and Sly Stone.

We’ve heard a lot of new music hatched during quarantine season. SuperBlue is one of the finest, and definitely the funkiest, to emerge so far. And it opens a new path for two of the most dynamic artists of our time.

This I Dig:

  • Greg digs Uma Elmo (ECM), by Jakob Bro
  • Nate is digging Major Labels (Penguin Press), by Kelefa Sanneh

Jazz United is produced for WBGO Studios by Trevor Smith.

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Greg Bryant has been a longtime curator of improvisational music. At the age of 3 in his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, he was borrowing his father’s records and spinning them on his Fisher Price turntable. Taking in diverse sounds of artistry from Miles Davis, Les McCann, James Brown, Weather Report and Jimi Hendrix gave shape to Greg's musical foundation and started him on a path of nonstop exploration.
A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.