The sessions for "Close Your Eyes" were my first as a professional musician. A few years earlier I had quit the University of Chicago's Divinity School one credit shy of my master's degree. Pulled away by musicians in the great and generous Chicago jazz scene, I spent the following two years sitting in at clubs, playing weddings and gigs (many with my bassist, Rob Amster). I tended bar. I did furniture moving. I worked on my craft, living in a one-room basement apartment for $150 a month. There I practiced and brooded and wrote poem fragments on the walls.…read more
By 1995, my ambition had the better of me. I had gotten to know Laurence Hobgood through saxophonist Ed Petersen, who had a steady Monday night gig at the Green Mill. With hardly any experience in the studio, I insisted to him that I was ready to record. I knew that I wanted at least to be able to sell something on my gigs that represented what I was hearing and making in live settings – humble as they were.
With Laurence's help, and with the financial assistance of an angelic friend, we lined up some recording dates and put together some trusted musical experts. I had some tunes that Rob and I had already been playing – "Never Say Goodbye" and "Clouds". Laurence brought some things to the table – "Never Never Land" and "Dolores" (to which he suggested I write a lyric). We wrote some new things together. I had the drive and Laurence had the orchestral skills. Seemed like a good idea at the time, and now I can see that it really was.
We came out with nine pieces, and I excitedly took the tapes around town playing them for musician friends. One of them, composer and pianist Fred Simon, suggested that I send the tape to a manager he knew and trusted in Los Angeles. I did, and from that mailing Bill Traut and I made a fast friendship that became a solid and successful ten-year business partnership.
What's more, within three weeks' time Bill got the tape to Bruce Lundvall, music lover non pareil at Blue Note Records. Bruce tells the story that he was in the back of his car in Manhattan on his way to the dentist when he began listening to the cassette demo. I don't think he got through four cuts before he frantically looked on the cassette to see who was singing. As it happened, my home phone number was still taped to the cassette. So he called the number.
Now, I don't know how one is supposed to act when one is an unknown 25-year-old jazz hopeful and one gets a call from the president of Blue Note Records at 9 o'clock on a Wednesday morning, but I was still half asleep from some $30.00 gig the night before. This made it possible for me to come off much cooler about the whole thing than I could have ever acted otherwise.
"Hello! Is this Kurt Elling!?"
"Well this is Bruce Lundvall from Blue Note Records! I have your tape playing right now in my car — I got it from Bill Traut. Listen, it's playing right now!" He holds the phone out for me to hear.
"You're darn right it's cool! I LOVE this! Listen, you haven't signed with anybody yet, have you? I mean Bill hasn't made a contract with anybody yet, has he? 'Cause I have GOT to have you as a Blue Note Artist."
"No, I'm cool."
"Great! Well, when are you playing next?"
"Uh, this Monday in Chicago at a club called the Green Mill."
"That's great! I am going to fly out there and meet you, young man. Can I call Bill to start things up? I want to have a signed contract by the end of this month! Is that ok with you?"
"Sure. Ok. Sounds hip. . ."
Needless to say, I did not keep my cool for long once the phone was back on the hook. But Bruce was true to his word and we met the first time at the Mill the next Monday night and signed the papers not long after. It was another good match, and another great friendship made. I cannot thank Bill Traut and Bruce Lundvall enough for opening the doors for me and for supporting me through the first long leg of my artistic journey. And I cannot even begin to thank Laurence enough for the ongoing creative partnership that began with this record. I mean, how do you properly thank your other creative half?
When I listen back to "Close Your Eyes" these days I hear mostly my mistakes and my exasperating youth. There are several spots where I think I overcome my inexperience with ideas approximating inspiration. But the adult me can't help wishing the younger me had had just a bit more time and musical discretion in his bag before we recorded. Still, I am proud of "Close Your Eyes" and of the innocent, inspired earnestness it represents.…close
Music/solo by Wayne Shorter
Vocalese lyric by Kurt Elling based on Wayne Shorter's improvised melody on "Dolores" from the 1977 recording VSOP: The Quintet
The white, electric skillet of a day
threatened to sear us all away -
fat frying, spluttering - rank Chicago smeltering along,
smothered in heavy, wooly sweat,
the city knew a sad regret
for staying long in summer's heavy.
No escape. Delirious.
So I went subterraneous.
Maybe I'd dream about Dolores'
kinda' auburn hair & hazel eyes.
Looking at her made chills go (indecipherable)
even if she wasn't even there & so I tried.
Put Wayne Shorter on to hide
and slept, completely mystified.
'Honk!' went a taxi cab outside to remind me night time was dawning.
Then Laurie & Guy call -say, 'let's go dancing & romance perchancing.
Summer times are sweeter at night.
The music is swinging all the night.'
I put a bowl of coffee on. I took a hit.
What with the day time on the lamb - jumped in my car, Uptown to scram.
Popped in a great Von Freeman jam and the coffee hit. Bam!
We hit a Jazz club called, 'The Mill'.
Dig it! My second domicile.
We had a great time hanging, until
I saw Dolores sweep into the room.
And then my head began to swoon.
I got a yen.
She came right up to me & when
she spoke my sweat broke. No joke.
Then came on the thrills,
and came on the chills!
She got me to dance -
I took a chance
replying, although she was kinda' shy,
I stole a sweet kiss on the sly (to simplify).
And when Dolores sighed a sigh,
you know, it got me kinda' high -
she hit me right between the eyes!
If there's one girl I've gotta' remember, it's her.
Music by Kurt Elling and Laurence Hobgood
Words by Kurt Elling
Laura was like a cloak to me;
as warm and comforting as a cloak should be -
making every day a mystery. And then she said,"Goodbye".
Jenny was like a healing fire,
with a voice just like an angel choir -
making my heart burn with pure desire.
And then she said, "Goodbye".
Too many lovers in a life, they come and go;
just making love and then making tracks.
Soft to touch, but hard to hold -
they go for a walk and they don't walk back.
One day, I know, she will come my way;
bringing a warmer night and a cooler day.
We will build our life like a sculpter molds her clay.
And we'll never say goodbye.
And I'm waiting for the girl who will never say good bye.
Little girl, don't ever say goodbye. Never say goodbye.
Music by Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond
Lyric by Kurt Elling
Originally titled "Audrey" from the 1954 recording Brubeck Time
Based on the short story, How the Thimble Came to be God, by R.M. Rilke
Once upon a time a cloud (a little cloud)
gathered her friends together and began to say, aloud,
"Friends, we can't find God. Isn't it odd?"
And they all agreed it was very odd, indeed,
to blow about the sky like a brainless seed.
"Something's really gone awry when older clouds oversimplify
when they say that it's just another day.
It's imperative we be somewhat more truly demonstrative
in becoming provocative.
Our parents neglect God, it's true - all their world is askew.
They go about bickering and scheme of possessing things
as though they own us, too, and own all that we do.
Yet they can't understand
just how foolish it is to build a house on sinking sand.
And when we cry
they say, "Oh my!
You'll grow out of it soon
and start singing a grown-up tune.'"
So the clouds made a vow,
since the grown-ups had lost God, somehow.
They would pick something out that would keep them aware
that they could take with them anywhere (like a lock of hair, or a pear)
- not an animal, or too big.
So the little ones looked around and up and down and in and out
and came up with a list:
They had a feather, erasers and string
pen knives and pencils and pieces of things
that they found in their pockets to spare
(and which they began to compare).
But the shiniest object (when looking them over) the thimble was brightest
and so they decided the thimble was rightest
for taking along and for knowing God was staying long and in their every day.
They knew where to find
their peace of mind
playing a game of tag or 'fame'
they simply had to call out the thimble's name.
Then, one day, the smallest
cloud took a big fall and
dropped the thimble from her hand.
And God turned to sand.
Just then, a wise old woman cloud happened along
and she asked the little cloud, "What's wrong?"
And the little cloud replied, "God's gone."
But the older cloud knew right away,
so she said to the little one, "Here's your thimble. I found it today."