Perhaps a major testimony to Elling's pre-eminence, perfectionism, and artistry is that he can afford to take four years between albums and keep his poll-winning streak intact. Listeners by now know the wait will be worth it, and this time Elling doesn't disappoint. Although there are a couple of misfires, the album as a whole is a successful and communicative labor of love, featuring a stunning program, stellar performances, and the performer in sterling voice. This one easily compares with "The Messenger" (the vocal transcription of "Body and Soul" is no less ambitious than "Tanya") and "Flirting With the Twilight" (the Sinatra-like breath support, rich and expressive timbre, and totally believable readings are even more impressive on the present outing).
"In the Wee Small Hours" and the medley of Berlin and Jobim (worthy of some of the Sinatra/Riddle juxtapositions on the "concept albums"), and even "Where Are You" are as a whole the most dead-on tributes to Old Blue that I've heard yet, even though they're not explicitly labeled as such. "Body and Soul," like "Tanya," is another tour-de-force inspired by Mr. Long Tall Dexter, whose musical narratives were the instrumental equivalents of the Chairman's vocal ones. Dexter recorded the tune numerous times, and Elling has elected to go with a '76 version from "Homecoming." (I wish it had been the exquisite '70 version from "The Panther," but that's a quibble given Dexter's consistency on each of his recorded improvisations on what is the musical touchstone to all tenor saxophonists not to mention the most recorded non-seasonal popular standard of all time.) As ambitious and well-executed as Elling's transcription is, it fails to catch some of the wry humor that perhaps only Dexter was capable of interspersing with the drama and passion of his storytelling.
An instance where more proves to be far less is Elling's tacking on to Mitchell Parish's simple, noble lyric for Duke Ellington's "I Like the Sunrise" the poetry of Rumi. Suddenly, Ellington's elegiac, haunting hymn of prayerful resignation is transformed into something quite different--evangelical zeal (it sounds as though the vocalist is saying to the original composing team, "Now that's a bad attitude. You should be more positive because Rumi says life is music and music can't die since it's an eternal energy field that assures us all of freedom." I can hear Elling jumping into "Ole Man River," enjoining the singer of the Hammerstein lyric not to give up, not to be "tired of living and scared of dying" because Rumi says so--like the river, we'll all "jes keep rolling along"). I'll take the Ellington-Sinatra version of "I Like the Sunrise" and, if it ever comes to that, the Riddle-Sinatra one of "Ole Man River." But at least the present artist doesn't shy away from offering the listener a clear-cut alternative.
Unfortunately, the CD does not contain a "bonus track" featuring a spirited, marvelous duet between Elling and John Pizzarelli--contractual problems? or was it feared today's audience would miss the allusion to an American movie classic and three American music giants, perhaps even assuming the extra track was "lightweight" in comparison to Elling's incorporation of the poetry of Roethke and Rumi not to mention the music of artiste Keith Jarrett). In any case, it can be downloaded at emusic and perhaps itunes and other sites. Cole Porter's "Did You Evah" (aka "What a Swell Party!) is far from being a cutesy throwaway number. A close comparison reveals that Pizzarelli and Elling pull this one off with the élan of the original Crosby/Sinatra version (from "High Society") while doing Cole Porter proud in the process. The unforced dialog, the humorous "trash talk" between singing rivals, the attempts to outdo one another at self-pitying parody, the effortless harmonizing, the adjustment to different tempos--it's snappy and hip, extemporaneous and exhilarating, and it's not easy to do nor any the less impressive for not meeting the haute couture requirements of the vocalist's fans. In fact, this (presently invisible) track might even qualify as a highlight.