Q&A:  Kurt Elling

Q&A: Kurt Elling

April 19, 2011 Off By The Jazz Messenger

I remember when Kurt Elling came onto the scene back in the 1990’s and he really stood out. The sound of his voice, phrasing and repertoire was refreshing and unique. He’s been steadily refining his craft and on his latest album The Gate, Kurt continues to raise the bar. This time we find him working through a not so obvious collection of pop tunes, intriguing originals and a beautiful jazz classic and he still stands out. He’s the real deal when it comes to singing as a jazz artist. We thought it was time to visit with Kurt again in the Q&A. – JV

Who are your main musical influences?
Mark Murphy is certainly the door through which I found out about the broadest range of jazz singing possibilities. By this I mean that Mark distilled a great number of things which preceded him, and then showed how one could point them in the direction of his own new and original ideas. He recreated songbook classics and hipped up bop through his phrasing, arranging and unique vocal ingenuity. Mark shows us all that the singers’ art is never done evolving. He showed how moving and dramatic an evening of jazz singing could be. I also became aware of Kerouac and the whole beat/jazz connection through Mark. He has made a lifetime of innovative, truly great vocal jazz records, and continues to innovate.

Jon Hendricks, of course, perfected the art of vocalese, which is the writing and performing of a lyric to a previously recorded instrumental solo. His brilliant work as a lyricist is unrivaled in this field for rhyming ingenuity and Mother Wit. His work leading the groundbreaking vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross cannot be underestimated. Jon is one of the all-time great improvising singers, and is the premier singing showman in jazz.

While she lived, Betty Carter was the paragon of jazz singer as total artist, total bandleader and total business manager-head. Her recording of “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most” from The Audience With Betty Carter is probably the most masterful modern reinvention of a standard ballad by a vocalist to have been recorded.

Al Jarreau at his best is as inspiring and swinging a singer as you are ever likely to hear. I listened to a lot of Al in college, and learned (or, tried to learn) most of his licks beat for beat. He is a great writer, too, and I continue to check out all of Al’s stuff, because it has a tendency to be very human and very beautiful. His take on Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo” is a virtuoso statement beyond category.

Joe Williams brought a refinement and natural manliness to Blues-oriented Jazz singing which has gone unparalleled. His live, small group recording A Swingin’ Night At Birdland (featuring Harry “Sweets” Edison) is among the hippest available. Digging him swing with the Basie Band on recordings is a necessary experience.

Ella Fitzgerald, of course, brought singer’s sensibility to the improviser’s art, making every line she ever sang sound like the most natural and necessary thing in the world. The genuine sweetness of her personality comes through in all her recordings.

Eddie Jefferson invented a new art form. Who gets to do that? Vocalese, the aforementioned art of transcribing an instrumental solo and then writing a lyric for it belongs to Eddie alone, and could only have happened with the advent of recorded sound. God bless Eddie and also the great King Pleasure for bringing this baby to the broader world.

Tony Bennett continues to knock audiences out with his willingness to give his whole self to every audience, holding nothing back. It is his great gift – to open his heart up so completely every night on every song. I loved Tony before it was cool. However, I must admit that his comeback records in small group settings with the Ralph Sharon Trio are his best.

Andy Bey = soulful and intelligent art of the highest order. Cat can make your dog weep. A great singer/player foolishly unheralded by the broader jazz consortium.

Have you heard of Nancy King? You should have. She is a marvelous, witty, liberated Jazz singer living in the Pacific Northwest and she is great. It is a crime that she has been offered no deal by the major labels. I tell you, she could make a lot of people very happy if they only could get a hold of her sides.

Don’t forget my lovely friend Sheila Jordan. She’s also a liberated jazz singer of the finest kind. There a lot of lessons in freedom and wisdom to be learned from a Sheila Jordan set.

I also listened to a lot of Chet Baker coming up. He is a great teacher of how few “extras” a great song needs to communicate with real depth. Chet was a master minimalist, and yet not one iota of emotive power is ever missing from his work.

Of course, none of this could have happened without Pops. Louis Armstrong pointed the way for all of us, infusing singing with his own complete instrumentalist’s consciousness. He was a master musician and improviser on all levels. He was transparent to his audiences. Because of that, he became a friend to the world.

What was your inspiration behind The Gate?
I was thinking of John Scofield and Charlie Hunter. Of course, it still came out Kurt Elling.

What was the experience like working with producer Don Was?
What Don brought to this project was his love of music and musicians, and a confidence that liberated us from all concern. He is the consummate producer and this was an extraordinary experience—my favorite in a studio.

Your rendition of “Blue and Green” is equally creative as it is emotionally moving. Can you talk about your approach and the challenge in singing that classic tune.
Laurence came up with the ostinato and the idea of elongating the melody many years ago. We often would perform the piece in third sets at The Mill. I remembered it from there and it seemed a perfect choice for this instrumentation and this recording.

There are many superb interpretations of pop tunes on The Gate. What do you look for in choosing a pop song to cover?
My intuition seeks out compositions, or remembers them or somehow otherwise encounters them. Usually but not always I hear compositions like this with some kind of new arrangement idea already in play. That’s what gives the impetus to continue working on a piece.

Kurt Elling
The Gate