Kurt Elling: What Makes a Jazz Singer

Kurt Elling details his ascent, responds to his detractors, and sets out to define the slippery parameters of vocal jazz.

Kurt Elling probably wouldn’t be the first to say it, but he’s been on some fiendishly impressive sort of roll. “I can feel, especially in the past year and a half or so, that I’m finding a new spot,” he allows, no trace of bravado in his tone, one recent winter evening on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “And it’s making the music better. I’m finding a new spot as a human being, and I’m happy about that.”

We’re at Bistro Citron, a few blocks from the apartment where Elling now lives with his wife, Jennifer, and their 5-year-old daughter, Luiza. He has in fact just come from one of Luiza’s school performances down the street. A Chicago native, he moved with his family to New York City several years ago, to test out a longtime “what if?” and flesh out, as he puts it, “a map inside my head.” It’s probably an accident of timing, but his tenure in the Big Apple has overlapped with an extremely blessed stretch of his career.

Last year, Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman finally earned Elling his first Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album. (He had been nominated for each of his previous eight.) In the 2010 JazzTimes Readers’ Poll, he was pronounced Best Male Vocalist for the sixth time; he earned the same honor in last issue’s inaugural Expanded Critics’ Poll. In that other big mainstream jazz magazine, critics voted him Male Vocalist of the Year for the 11th year in a row. Looking back to late 2009, there was his performance at the first State dinner hosted by Barack and Michelle Obama, with whom he has been acquainted for a while. (Six years ago he bought their condo on the south side of Chicago. “His book sales were taking off,” Elling says of the president, a state senator at the time, “and he was ready to have a mansion. And I was ready for laundry in-unit.”)

So by seemingly every metric that matters in his world, Elling is clearly on top. But don’t talk to him about preeminence, because he’s taking the long view. “I’m still only 43,” he says. “When I’m 70—and this is what I’m shooting for—then I’m the man. By that point I’ve paid all the dues I’m going to pay, and I’ll have a body of work behind me. So I can be patient. And in the meantime, there is this project. I believe in this project right now.”

This project right now is The Gate, his luminous new Concord Jazz release, made with the versatile producer Don Was. A collection of standards and deep cuts spanning a wide berth of genre—jazz and pop, prog-rock and R&B—the album sustains a single emotional chord, reflective and bittersweet. It’s a splendid representation of Elling’s art at its leanest, its most expressively distilled. And it’s a distinctly mature statement, both for him and for Laurence Hobgood, his pianist and creative partner of more than 15 years. “What I think we captured with this record,” observes Was, “is that Laurence and Kurt have hit this plane where there’s no affectation; there’s no trying to be clever or cerebral. This is music that’s coming from the heart. It’s infused with the truth of the song as they see it. These guys are treading some very new ground in subtle ways.”

“What we’re trying to go for is an honest reflection of how I’m hearing stuff,” Elling says, as a bowl of garlicky escargot arrives at the table. “I think it’s a gentler record, and yet I hope it’s no less innovative, in its way. Because you don’t have to shoot off fireworks to prove that you’ve got technique, or history, or a vision, or any of those things. That’s all youthful stuff, and when you burn stuff away that you don’t need anymore, you can just sing. And you are a jazz singer, you just are, at a certain point.”

The issue of what makes a jazz singer has fascinated Elling for a while, and he takes this moment to riff on the subject, and on a recent column of mine in this magazine. (“What Is Jazz Singing, Anyway?,” from the December 2010 issue.) “What is a jazz singer?” he responds, rhetorically. “I think it can be pretty well defined.” And what follows is a thumbnail definition, which he presents as thoughtfully, with as much of a sense of pace, as one of his onstage forays into spoken word. Transcribing it later, I can’t help but register the pauses between each phrase, which effectively turn the sentence into free verse:

A jazz singer is
somebody who devotes their life
to
an art form
that demands
a spirit—at least, a spirit—of improvisation
and risk taking

Then he resumes a conversational cadence, as if he’s just passed an “End Speed Zone” sign on the highway. “And for that to happen, one has to go deep into music,” he adds.

“So you’re an improviser. But if you’re a jazz improviser, you also study, in a very deep way, the history of great jazz artists. Firstly and primarily singers, but not exclusively. And you have an opinion about what made Betty Carter great. And you have an opinion about what made Joe Williams unique. And you have an opinion about Mel Tormé one way or another. And you love it, and you spend time thinking about it.” Another pause, this one brief. “So you’ve got somebody who studies music itself. Somebody who studies jazz singers. Somebody who studies Wayne Shorter, and Herbie, and Bird. If you’re a jazz person, you love jazz.” Deep breath now. “Somebody who studies themselves. Because you can’t really be a vessel of deep meaning unless you’re asking to have deep meaning revealed to you. And to be an embodiment of something more than you.”

The rest of this article appears in the April 2011 issue of JazzTimes.

Originally published in April 2011

2 Comments

  • Mar 23, 2011 at 09:33PM Kevin Oliver

    Kurt Elling is "The Man". Haters better recognize...

  • Mar 25, 2011 at 04:20AM Carri Bella

    Love the description a la "free verse." Damn! I need that April copy of the magazine right now! You've just whetted my appetite.

    @CarriBella

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