Let’s come right out and say it: Kurt Elling is the most influential jazz vocalist of our time. Mercurial but ever-lyrical, a serenader as well as a searcher, he represents the higher instincts and aspirations of a field crowded with every sort of throwback. At 42, he’s a perennial poll winner and consummate insider, occupying a role that would have seemed far-fetched when he made his first album 15 years ago. But the state of jazz singing will be different in the coming decade than it was when he arrived, and I dare say it will be better.
In no small part, that’s because of the ambitious standard he has set. “Among my jazz students, he’s the contemporary singer that I hear cited the most as an influence,” says David Thorne Scott, an associate professor in the voice department at the Berklee College of Music. “I always expect it from my guys, but it’s the women too.” Similar testimony comes from Dominique Eade, an accomplished jazz singerand revered faculty member at the New England Conservatory. “Technically he’s so impressive,” she says, “and I think students can feel the weight of musicianship behind what he does, in his transcription and his writing of lyrics to other people’s solos.” With a chuckle, she adds, “It’s sometimes hard for me to remember this, but I’m teaching kids who don’t know Mark Murphy and don’t know Eddie Jefferson, and may not know Annie Ross. There’s a direction that those people pointed toward that nobody really followed through on. It almost skipped a generation. Kurt took that idea and carried it forward.”