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Kurt Elling: Keeper of the Flame

Roseanna Vitro interviews the acclaimed singer about his artistic development, influences and approach

Singer Kurt Elling performed with his quartet and John Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quinter +1 band at the 2012 Newport Jazz Festival

I am excited to have the opportunity to present a candid and informative interview with Kurt Elling, a vocal musician and teacher I have admired since first hearing his version of “Gingerbread Boy” from 1997’s Blue Note record The Messenger. In recent years Kurt has expanded his repertoire to include a variety of musical styles and attitudes. He appears to be unconcerned with genre or musical labels, coolly operating outside the orbit of those who favor adherence to stylistic orthodoxy. That, of course, is a discussion one often hears among members of the jazz community.

Without a doubt, Kurt’s attention to technique, history and creativity, make him a good role model for today’s jazz vocalists. He possesses an excellent instrument and sings with true conviction. He is also a caring and effective clinician, evident in all situations, whether in a master class or private session. I attended one of Kurt’s classes at Michiko Studios in New York City and was very impressed with his patience and ability to zoom in on students, to discern what they needed and determine how to best serve their talent. As we know, sensitivity and emotions can run high when a singer presents for professionals; in this classroom setting, he put everyone at ease. (For information about Kurt’s teaching go to his website.)

Elling’s career path helps explain his all-around acumen. He developed his craft in Chicago, and recorded several of his early albums there – including his debut, Close Your Eyes, which catapulted him onto the national stage via the first of his many GRAMMY nominations. This proved the start of something big: every one of Elling’s nine albums has been nominated for at least one jazz GRAMMY – a streak unequalled in GRAMMY history.

Now, Kurt turns his attention to New York. He hopes that his newest project, 1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project, will extend his streak of winning albums. Concord Records describes it as “a celebration of a legendary legacy from outside the jazz world. [It] honors a locale that the London Telegraph said was, ‘the most important generator of popular songs in the Western world. Even for the ceaselessly inventive GRAMMY-winning singer-lyricist, it’s a hugely unexpected step, and one guaranteed to further solidify his reputation for bold innovation and superb craftsmanship.”

With this as our musical backdrop, I thank Kurt for taking the time to share his valuable knowledge and valuable insights with us. He is a master musician and vocalist, and there is much to be learned from the road he’s traveled.

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