Kurt Elling has finally delivered on the potential promised on his 1997 album The Messenger. It is true that Elling has been terrifically consistent in his offerings with very inspired performances-- even if the material and its execution were not nearly as adventurous as that storied earlier recording. But Man in the Air is the extension of all the wandering risk of The Messenger. Here Elling and his regular band -- pianist Laurence Hobgood, bassist Rob Amster, and drummer Frank Parker Jr. -- are joined by current vibe king Stefon Harris and Jim Gailloreto on soprano saxophone. The program is a regal selection of compositions by Pat Metheny ("Minuano"), John Coltrane ("Resolution"), Bob Mintzer ("All Is Quiet"), Josef Zawinul ("Time to Say Goodbye"), Herbie Hancock ("A Secret I"), and others, including his bandmates, with lyrics added by Elling. While this may on initial impression seem shocking or even sacrilegious, the result is anything but. In fact, Elling is one one of the few mainstream jazz artists out there currently trying to extend the reach of this music, and to expand it as an artform in an age when reactionary neo-traditionalism is killing it, not only in terms of evolution but in the marketplace, too. From the sultry feel of "In the Winelight," with Hobgood's sweet, nocturnal electric piano and Elling's phrasing, seductive without sentiment, to Coltrane's "Resolution," with its wildly syncopated delivery and lyrics that introduce the cosmic to its underside and reconciles all major religious figures to the planet Earth as well as the cosmos, it is obvious that Elling's accomplishment is in making the composer accessible to the listener in a new way. Elling's grasp of Trane's metaphysics and his modalism is rapturous, knotty, and it charges for the boundaries. Consider, however, that Elling and his crew are able to translate Zawinul's gorgeous ballad into a pastoral and elegiac scene of aural cinemarife with lush nuances and metonymic devices. The title track by Hobgood and Elling is among the most beautiful things on the recording. Here are two musicians who understand one another on every subtle level. Hobgood is a criminally under-recognized pianist. His sense of harmonic architecture and melodic invention are among the most innovative of the current grown-up generation of jazz players, and his allowance for space and nuance acts as a perfect foil for Elling's rigorous restructuring of intervals and cadences. This mid-tempo and euphoric exercise in jazz poesy is remarkable for its lyrical invention and shimmering choruses. Most importantly, Man in the Air is not a "fusion" record. It is a jazz record that comes from the heart of its great vocal tradition and extends it without running over it or tossing it aside in favor of the empty postmodern construct of "the new." What has always been lasting about the introduction of new directions in jazz is how it uses the tradition in order to make it deeper and wider. Man in the Air certainly does so with verve, grace, adventure, and consummate skill. This is Elling's finest moment thus far and is easily a candidate for one of the finest albums of 2003.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek