It's been a very good year for Kurt Elling -- a very good year indeed!
The Gate, Kurt's ninth album and the third on the Concord label, debuted in February to great acclaim and was #1 on the JazzWeek Jazz Chart for nine weeks. JazzWeek later declared The Gate its 2011 Record of the Year.
Producer Don Was (Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Bonnie Raitt) brought his exquisite sensibility, expertise, and great love of music into the studio to help make The Gate a truly outstanding album.
As with all of Kurt's recordings, The Gate received the Grammy nomination for Best Vocal Jazz Album. The 54th Grammy Awards will be announced on February 12, 2012.
The Gate also won the prestigious 2011 Edison Jazz/World Award for Vocal Jazz. The Edison, considered the Dutch Grammy, is one of the oldest music awards in the world. Only the Grammy is older by one year. Prizes are awarded to artists whose recordings over the last year are considered by the Edison professional jury to be the best achievement in their genre.
For the twelfth year in a row Kurt was named Male Vocalist of the Year in the DownBeat Critics Poll, and he got his sixth win in the DownBeat Readers Poll.
JazzTimes readers also agreed, voting Kurt as the Male Vocalist of the Year in the JazzTimes Readers' Poll. It was his seventh win.
The Jazz Journalists Association also tapped Kurt as Male Singer of the Year for the seventh time.
In September, the Urban League Club of Chicago inducted Kurt and the Ravinia Festival's Welz Kauffman as Distinguished Musicians, honoring their contributions to the arts and the community.
Kurt performed in 138 shows in 74 cities in 24 countries in 2011.
Most of those dates were with the Kurt Elling Quintet -- Kurt's long-time collaborator and musical director Laurence Hobgood on piano, Harish Raghavan (January-June) and then Clark Sommers on bass, Ulysses Owens on drums, and featuring Chicago's own John McLean on guitar.
Kurt also performed with an amazing number of guest artists and musical collaborators during the year:
- Klüvers Big Band
- Scottish National Jazz Orchestra
- Nashville Symphony
- Richard Galliano
- John Pizzarelli
- Ernie Watts
- Bill Charlap, Ken Peplowski, Jeremy Pelt, & Jimmy Greene
- Jon Hendricks, Al Jarreau, & the Metropole Orchestra conducted by Vince Mendoza
- Herbie Hancock, Chaka Khan, Glen Hansard, Aimee Mann, Wayne Shorter & Cassandra Wilson
- Welz Kauffman
- Dee Dee Bridgewater, Chaka Khan, Jane Monheit, Dianne Reeves, Aretha Franklin, & Jennifer Hudson
- Miguel Zenón
- Lew Tabackin
- Ravi Coltrane
- Robin Eubanks
- Stefon Harris
- John Hollenbeck's the Claudia Quintet +1
In addition to The Gate, Kurt was also featured on two other albums in 2011.
Note of Hope, a celebration of Woody Guthrie, based on the words and writings of the great American master, features Grammy-winning bassist Rob Wasserman's collaborations with Jackson Browne, Ani DiFranco, Kurt, Michael Franti, Nellie McKay, Tom Morello, Van Dyke Parks, Madeleine Peyroux, Lou Reed, Pete Seeger, Studs Terkel, Tony Trischka, and Chris Whitley. Accompanied by Laurence Hobgood, Rob Wasserman, and Ulysses Owens, Kurt's funky and inspired version of Guthrie's "Peace Pin Boogie" on Note of Hope is a tongue-in-cheek look at the rewards of being politically correct.
What Is The Beautiful?, from the Claudia Quintet +1, features Kurt Elling and Theo Bleckmann on vocals. One hundred years after poet Kenneth Patchen's birth, composer/drummer John Hollenbeck and The Claudia Quintet +1 celebrate Patchen in this hour-long tribute, which reimagines Patchen's texts in a unique musical setting.
And so as another year draws to a close, we welcome another new beginning, full of promise and hope. As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, "And now let us believe in the new year that is given us, new, untouched, full of things that have never been."
Kurt promises all new notes in the new year!
On November 30 when the 54th annual Grammy nominations were announced in Los Angeles, renowned jazz vocalist Kurt Elling was honored with his ninth Grammy nomination for The Gate in the Best Jazz Vocal category.
Every one of Kurt's albums has been Grammy nominated. Nine albums, eleven nominations in all -- that's excellence!
The New York Times is one of numerous publications to declare that Kurt Elling is the "standout male vocalist of our time," and The Gate, Elling's follow-up to his Grammy-winning Dedicated to You, is among his strongest albums—and perhaps the finest of his career.
Produced by Don Was (Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan), The Gate is a musical collection in which boundaries cease to exist.
The Gate points Elling in a new and satisfyingly emotional direction. He has somehow found a way to make a deeply personal statement out of the music of King Crimson, Joe Jackson, Stevie Wonder and the Beatles—in addition to providing a new and vibrant understanding of Miles Davis, Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock.
The Gate features longtime associate Laurence Hobgood on piano, Bob Mintzer on sax, John McLean on guitar, John Patitucci on bass, and two drummers, Terreon Gulley and Kobie Watkins—in addition to percussionist Lenny Castro.
The Gate closes with a song that represents Elling's continued dedication to exploring jazz's past and blazing a trail for its future. Composed by the late Don Grolnick, "Nighttown, Lady Bright” features spoken words written by Duke Ellington and additional lyrics by Elling, who wished to close the album with a cinematic depiction of a jazz musician's life.
Said The Washington Post, "Since the mid-1990s, no singer in jazz has been as daring, dynamic or interesting as Kurt Elling. With his soaring vocal flights, his edgy lyrics and sense of being on a musical mission, he has come to embody the creative spirit in jazz."
That spirit is in rich evidence on The Gate –and a musical feast awaits those who pass through.
The Grammy Awards ceremony will be held February 12th at the Staples Center in Los Angeles and broadcast on CBS.
As always, bountiful and heartfelt congratulations, Kurt!
The prestigious 2011 Edison award for Vocal Jazz has been awarded to Kurt Elling for The Gate. The Edison is considered the Dutch Grammy.
The Edison is one of the oldest music awards in the world. Only the Grammy is older by one year. The first Edison was awarded in 1960.
Named in tribute to Thomas Alva Edison, there are three award categories: Edison Jazz/World, Edison Pop, and Edison Klassiek (Classical), each with its own professional jury. Prizes are awarded to artists whose recordings over the last year are considered by the jury to be the best achievement in their genre.
In the Vocal Jazz category, this year's award goes to Kurt's album The Gate. According to the jury, The Gate has been tastefully produced by Don Was and shows impressive craftsmanship. Outstanding!
There are only four annual Edison jazz awards, plus one for best DVD and one for Special Historical Edition. The list of this year's jazz winners is here (in Dutch).
The formal awards ceremony will take place on Wednesday, November 16, 2011, at the Philips Concert Hall in Eindhoven, The Netherlands.
Many congratulations to Kurt and everyone involved in making The Gate!
Once again, Kurt Elling has been named Male Vocalist of the Year in the DownBeat Critics Poll and in its Readers Poll. It's a clean sweep!
The 76th Annual Readers Poll results were just announced and will be featured in the December 2011 issue of DownBeat.
Critics Poll results were announced earlier.
This is the sixth year Kurt has topped the DownBeat Readers Poll, winning in 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2009, and now 2011.
He's won the top spot in the Critics Poll twelve years in a row, ever since 2000.
As always, hearty congratulations, Kurt!
Kurt Elling hosts the Klüvers Big Band from Denmark on their first visit to the United States. They're performing together in Chicago, New York, Washington, DC, and Boston from October 21 - November 2.
I am very happy to have the opportunity to host the Klüvers Big Band on their maiden voyage to the US. I anticipate a lot of joy in our time together, and look forward to listening to the band interact with Laurence and the rest of my cats, who will make up the rhythm section for the tour. We'll be doing large band arrangements of things from The Gate and from Dedicated To You, in addition to customized arrangements created and compiled over several years of my doing big band dates.
Kurt toured Scandinavia with Klüvers in 2004, 2007, and again in a sold-out tour in January 2011. They also performed together at this year's North Sea Jazz festival in July.
This is the Klüvers Big Band's first trip to the United States and is made possible in part by the patronage of HRH Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark. The Band is based in Århus, Denmark.
They play two nights at the Green Mill in Chicago, October 21-22, and then a six-night residency at Birdland October 25-30, playing two sets each night.
At Birdland, the Kurt Elling Quartet and the Klüvers Big Band will be joined by stellar special guests:
- Miguel Zenón, saxophone (Tues)
- Lew Tabackin, flute & saxophone (Wed)
- Ravi Coltrane, saxophone (Thurs & Sat)
- Robin Eubanks, trombone (Fri)
- Stefon Harris, vibes (Sun)
Then they travel to Washington, DC for two shows at Blues Alley on November 1, and wind up in Boston at the historic Wilbur Theatre on November 2, which is also Kurt's birthday.
On October 11, Cuneiform Records released What Is The Beautiful? by The Claudia Quintet +1 with special guests vocalists Kurt Elling and Theo Bleckmann.
"Soon it will/Be showtime again," recites Kurt Elling at the outset of The Claudia Quintet's sixth CD, What Is The Beautiful? "Somebody will paint beautiful faces all over the sky."
Bandleader/percussionist John Hollenbeck's evocative, richly luminescent compositions definitely possess the suggestive power to encourage listeners to look heavenward, searching for those faces in the sky.
Hollenbeck immediately thought of Kurt Elling to give voice to these poems -- wholly unaware that Elling is something of a Patchen aficionado. "Kurt is a scholar with this stuff," Hollenbeck says. "He knew Patchen and knew exactly what to do. He's amazing."
On his own recordings, Patchen recites his work in a gruff monotone; Elling, on the other hand, inhabits these poems as an actor would a role. On "Showtime," he welcomes listeners with the bold enunciation of a television emcee. He lurches through "Opening the Window" with an intoxicated stagger, and he recounts the menacing absurdities of the surreal "Job" with dueling voices: his own and a blue-collar Chicago accent, transforming the piece into a duet of narrator and character.
Soon It Will
Be showtime again. Somebody will paint beautiful faces all over the sky.
Somebody will start bombarding us with really wonderful letters . . .
letters full of truth, and gentleness, and humility . . .
Soon (it says here) . . .
On September 30, Kurt Elling and pianist and Ravinia Festival President/CEO Welz Kauffman were inducted as Distinguished Musicians by the Union League Club of Chicago, America's #1 City Club.
The Union League Club of Chicago established its Distinguished Artists program in 1997. The purpose of the program is to honor select Chicago-area artists for their contributions to both the visual arts and the community. In 2002, the Club extended the program to include authors and musicians. Internationally known, the artists who have been inducted into the program choose to make Chicago their home and continue to contribute to the cultural well-being and world-class status of the community.
This year's honorees join the ranks of prior recipients, including Nicole Cabell, Augusta Read Thomas, Nancy Gustafson, Ramsey Lewis, Rachel Barton Pine, Samuel Ramey, James Palermo, and Josephine Lee.
As the Chicago Sun-Times reported, the evening "featured performances by the Chicago's Children's Choir, Lincoln Trio and Ravinia Jazz Scholars — plus the world premiere of a Ramsey Lewis piano solo, played by Kauffman, and the Ravinia head honcho accompanying Elling in Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue."
Many congratulations to these two Distinguished Musicians who's contributed so much to Chicago -- Kurt Elling and Welz Kauffman!
On September 27th, 429 Records released Note of Hope, a celebration of Woody Guthrie, based on the words and writings of the great American master.
The collection features Grammy-winning bassist Rob Wasserman's collaborations with Jackson Browne, Ani DiFranco, Kurt Elling, Michael Franti, Nellie McKay, Tom Morello, Van Dyke Parks, Madeleine Peyroux, Lou Reed, Pete Seeger, Studs Terkel, Tony Trischka, and Chris Whitley. The release is the first of a series of events leading up to the 2012 centennial celebration of Guthrie's birth.
Kurt Elling's funky, inspired performance of Guthrie's "Peace Pin Boogie" (track 6) is a tongue-in-cheek look at the rewards of being politically correct.
The tracks, primarily unpublished Guthrie writings, were penned between 1942 and 1954 while he was living in New York City and Brooklyn. The project was conceived by Nora Guthrie, Woody's daughter, who, inspired by the work of renowned bassist Rob Wasserman asked him to lead the project. Together the two, along with music production company Steep Inc., recruited a stellar group of artists uniquely suited to bringing Guthrie's words alive.
Fear No ART Chicago's Elysabeth Alfano sat down with Kurt Elling for an in-depth and intimate conversation when Kurt and the band performed at the Green Mill in Chicago in July 2011.
Alfano writes for the Huffington Post:
Who doesn't love listening to live jazz at The Green Mill? Al Capone folklore aside, its quirky stage, ornate decor, sumptuously shaped bar and huge round booths take you back in time. And when jazz greats, such as the Grammy Award-winning vocalist Kurt Elling, take the stage, it is easy to understand why The Green Mill is often referred to as legendary.
I sat down with Kurt Elling for Fear No ART at The 3rd Coast Cafe, just a few hours before his July 2, 2011 show at The Green Mill, for an intimate and in-depth conversation. I learned how much his long history in spiritual studies informs his work and how incredibly driven he is. I have interviewed many artists over the years and Kurt Elling is by far the most driven, disciplined, and devoted to his art.
Enjoy this interview which includes many live segments from his performance in July and a unique insight into how he approaches his art. In addition, he gives an interesting take on audience etiquette as seen from the vantage point of the stage.
Once again, the critics have chosen Kurt as the top male vocalist in the 59th annual DownBeat Critics Poll!
Kurt has been named the DownBeat Critics Poll Male Vocalist of the Year for twelve consecutive years, from 2000 through 2011, and was also awarded Talent Deserving Wider Recognition from 1997 to 2000.
Frank Alkyer, DownBeat's publisher, remarked,
The DownBeat Critics Poll is the most comprehensive poll in the jazz world, with 63 separate categories. The 80 critics who voted in this year's poll really dug in to address what's happening in every style and on every instrument, including vocals, in jazz.
Congratulations to all of the 2011 winners, and especially to Kurt!
Coming up soon: Voting in the DownBeat Readers Poll. Stay tuned . . .
JazzWeek, the weekly online publication dedicated to jazz and jazz radio programming, announced its 2011 JazzWeek Awards at the annual JazzWeek Summit on June 18 in Rochester, New York. The JazzWeek Awards cover thirteen categories.
Kurt Elling's THE GATE (Concord) was honored as 2011 Record of the Year!
THE GATE has been on the JazzWeek jazz chart for 17 weeks since its release in February, almost half the time at #1.
Jazz Nominees are selected by JazzWeek subscribers, including jazz radio programmers, jazz record company executives and independent jazz radio record promoters. JazzWeek celebrates its 10th anniversary in August.
The full list of winners is here.
Many congratulations, Kurt!
The Jazz Journalists Association has named Kurt Elling its Male Singer of the Year! The fifteenth annual Jazz Journalists Association Jazz Awards ceremony was held June 11, 2011 at City Winery in New York.
This is Kurt's seventh JJA Jazz Award. He previously won in 2000, 2002, 2006, 2007, 2009, and 2010.
Other nominees for 2011 Male Singer of the Year were Bobby McFerrin, Freddy Cole, Giacomo Gates, and Gregory Porter.
The 2011 JJA Jazz Awards ceremony was hosted by Josh Jackson of WBGO's The Checkout. Featured performers included Randy Weston, Jane Bunnett and Hilario Duran, Gregory Porter, and the Hammer Klavier Trio.
As long-time jazz writer, Neil Tesser, says:
The JJA Award has evolved into the most prestigious award in the jazz community: since it comes from writers, critics, photographers, and broadcasters who follow jazz on a professional basis, it is considered relatively free of commercial pressures and popularity concerns.
In addition to musician awards in 29 categories, the JJA honors its members – journalists, photographers, and broadcasters – in 10 categories, as well as "Jazz Heroes” in various cities. These "Heroes” are recognized for their contributions to the jazz scene in areas other than performance and journalistic coverage.
Again this year, the JJA Jazz Awards were streamed live and tweeted on the Internet, and satellite parties were held in nine cities, all celebrating those who make and document jazz at the highest levels of excellence.
The complete list of winners is here.
Congratulations to all the winners and nominees, and especially to Kurt!
Excellent news! Once again Kurt has been nominated for Male Singer of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association. He received the JJA top honor in 2010, his sixth win since 2000.
Other nominees in this category are Bobby McFerrin, Freddy Cole, Giacomo Gates, and Gregory Porter.
The finalist nominees for the 2011 JJA Jazz Awards for Music and Media will be voted on by professional members of the Jazz Journalists Association to select a winner in each category. Winners will be announced at the JJA Jazz Awards Gala on June 11, 2011 at City Winery, NYC and simultaneously via live streaming video to be viewed online and at satellite parties around the country.
The complete list of JJA Jazz Awards 2011 Nominees is here.
Congratulations to Kurt and all the outstanding nominees!
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
an art form
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.
BUY THIS ISSUE originally published in April 2011
The full article is also here.
Kurt Elling follows up his wondrous John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman-inspired album Dedicated To You with a soul and rock songbook-flavoured release titled The Gate produced by famed rock producer Don Was. Peter Quinn talks to Kurt about the new challenges he faced on making the album.
It's one of the great what-ifs of jazz. Imagine, for a second, that in 1992 Kurt Elling hadn't ended up a language credit shy of gaining a Masters in Philosophy of Religion from the University of Chicago. The picture might have looked something like this (cue ripple dissolve): a book-lined study, an anglepoise lamp sitting on top of a sturdy mahogany desk, and Professor Kurt Elling's tutorial on 'Spinoza and the Question of Being' is in full swing. Happily, for us, fate decreed that Elling's path did not lead down the road to academe. Instead, he's The Greatest Living Male Jazz Vocalist. Funny how things work out.
And yet, interviewing Elling in a central London hotel, there is something of the academic about him. Perhaps it's the way the singer – dressed in jeans, smart shirt and sporting a chunky, rather rakish-looking silver bracelet – carefully weighs each question before offering an always considered and eloquently expressed response. As Don Was, the producer on Elling's new release The Gate, tells me: "At any given time for this guy, he's the most intelligent cat in the room.” But don't take Don's word for it, just listen to the work: lyrics adapted from Rilke, quotes from Proust, 'My Foolish Heart' interpolated with St. John of the Cross. And who else would think to marry a little-known Duke Ellington piece with the words of a thirteenth century Sufi mystic? Check out 'I Like The Sunrise' on Nightmoves and hear why Kurt Elling is, to use his own parlance, a heavy cat.
This is an extract from Jazzwise Issue #150 – to read the full article click here to subscribe and receive a FREE CD...
The full article is also here.
Related sidebar features from Jazzwise, March 2011:
Jazz Inside: Can we start by talking about your latest recording, The Gate? What does this recording mean for you? What was the process like for you, and what elements of this recording are you most proud of?
Kurt Elling: I'm proud of it in its totality. I'm proud of the interaction between the cats that we have – this particular assembly of musicians loaning their talents, their skills, and their virtuosity to something that I wanted to pull together. I really had to sing up to their abilities on this record in a way that has exceeded all other times that I've had to sing up. It was a big challenge when we were in the studio together. I basically had to comment to myself at least, and just say, "Man, you better start singing some shit!” (Laughs) Because they just really brought it. I'll also say that the secondary and no less important defining characteristic of this experience was having Don Was at the studio with us and having him back up all the stuff that I wanted to try and give all of us who were in the studio so much love and so much support of the things that we wanted to try out and experiment with and play. That just made all the difference cause it gave us so much more freedom and so much more confidence in what we wanted to do. He was right there as the ultimate big brother in the best possible way.
JI: I think it is so important in jazz, being it is so interactive, to have great chemistry on a personal level with your band mates, and I see the difference between long term band mates to short term similar to relationship between young lovers and a married couple. I think it's beautiful that you have such a long history playing with Laurence Hobgood. Can you talk about what it is that sustains your relationship and what the partnership has been like for you and how it has evolved?
KE: Sure. First of all, we admire one another's work and we have a very deep regard for the gifts that one another brings to the table and I think those gifts are very complimentary. I can not orchestrate the way that Laurence can and Laurence can not write a lyric or put a show together, so to speak, like I can. My own compositional sense tends to be much more straight forward and simple. Laurence tends to have a much more complex and labyrinthine take on what is possible in the music so we balance one another out in that way and in many ways. I've taken care of the business end and the bandleader end and he very, very, very ably takes care of the rehearsal end by and large, and keeps the charts together and really as far as I'm concerned deserves credit for a lot of the quality control when we do a project together and certainly deserves a much broader audience for his own solo and trio work that he's recorded for Naim and as a great performer in his own right. Perhaps that's a story for another article.
JI: As a jazz singer, you can't hide behind tricks and routine or the consistent tone of your instrument if you are uninspired. After seeing many of your live performances, I feel like you always bring your a-game and are at your best. How do you manage to stay inspired day after day?
KE: I definitely have challenges on occasion and I'll tell you I give whatever audience I'm in front of the best possible music that I can on that day and on that occasion and at times I've had to just dig into my bag of – I'm a professional and though I'm not emotionally in a mood to do this right now, I'm a professional and I have a professional task to deliver and that's just human nature, but you're right, it is very raw and very vulnerable. Singers are more vulnerable than any instrumentalist. There is no piece of metal to hide behind, literally. You can't duck behind the piano. Whether that means that the overall premise that singers just don't have the possibility of playing by rote, I'm not sure that that's true although I can't think of an occasion in the jazz world that I've heard that. I've certainly seen it in other genres.
JI: And this is kind of an extension to that question – it's obvious that you have such a comfort level with people and with audiences and one word I associate with your singing is Joy. You seem almost like a kid when you're about to start singing. One can see that there is a certain enthusiasm and sense of wonder in the way you approach it and I feel that to be able to be comfortable requires more than talent. It takes certain character and personality to do that. Have you had to develop yourself to get to that comfort level, or was it there to begin with? And if you have had to develop it, what kinds of things have you had to do or work through to get there?
KE: Well you grow and you change over time as a human being and if the music you decide to make is transparent and genuine, then what you produce as a musician and what you play in front of people is going to be reflected in that, whether you are fearful, angry, joyful, or whatever the case may be. I certainly did not set out with the level of comfort in front of audiences that I have now. I had an idea in my mind of what that would be like and I made that as a target of my growth. Some things you can work toward consciously and other things have to happen with maturity of time and experience on and off the stand. I'm certainly a happier person just walking around because of my daughter being in the world. That's made a big change for me and I think that's reflected in the way I feel on stage because I have a different and more dimensional view of the experience of being alive. I'm more comfortable in life and therefore I'm more comfortable on stage. Also, there is no substitution for time spent on the stage – I'm just throwing this out as a number, 10 gigs a year, or 20 gigs a year, or 50 gigs a year, is not the same as doing 200 or 210 nights a year on the road, and a lot of the stuff that comes has to come because you've paid the price and you've sacrificed and you've had the great gift of being in front of 200 or 210 or 215 audiences a year.
JI: Your delivery as a singer is very spontaneous and there is a lot of surprise in it for the listener but at the same time it is very accurate – you seem very much in control. It's almost free and precise at the same time, especially your pitch and where you can go with your intervals and your runs. What kind of work was involved for you in that department? Is that also just experience, or did you have a technical routine in your formative years to get to that? And can you share if you did?
KE: Well I was singing from the time I could remember so that has something to do with it. My father was a church musician so I grew up learning how to sing in tune and in harmony with other singers and I grew from there to do very difficult more classical oriented pieces – anything from 12th century plainsong to crazy Norwegian contemporary composers to Mozart to Brahms to everything in between. That is no small thing over the first 18 or 19 years of your life. I've also paid attention to instrumentalists and tried to learn from them what more intricate things there are to be played by way of intervallic work and I've developed a regular discipline of what it means to be a working artist and there really aren't any shortcuts for that.
JI: What is it that inspires you and fuels your creativity other than the music itself and other than your own music itself? What kinds of things inspire you to pick up the mic and do your thing?
KE: It's my vocation. So it's a day to day calling to pick up the tools of my self. I'm a jazz singer, I want to be a jazz singer, I want to do what jazz singers do and therefore I sit down at my desk and I warm up and I try to work on music everyday because I have a curiosity about it and I know I have more concerts coming up and I know that I have opportunities and obligations for my audience to continue to surprise them.
JI: What to you is the ultimate form of satisfaction, related to what you do or the biggest reward that you can receive as an artist.
KE: To continue to have the opportunity to do it. I feel like I've felt for many years now. I've already crossed the ultimate finish line. I get to be a jazz singer. I get to go through the discipline, the struggles, the triumphs, the lifestyle and make it work as much as I can in my own way and it's up to me how the art goes from here, at least in my own case. Certainly I wouldn't say that on a Meta level. It's not up to me where the Art, with a capital A goes but it's up to me where my art goes and that's a great gift right there, that I can go down a road that belongs to me and I can be a jazz person, so that's all gravy for me and it's the main course.
These are excerpts from a longer interview with Gary Heimbauer and Kurt Elling in the March 2011 issue of Jazz Inside. Kurt also speaks about the difference between recording in the studio and in front of a live audience, his earlier album, Dedicated to You, learning from the jazz tradition, the sacrifices of his vocation, how he goes about writing a vocalese lyric, and more.
You can download of the entire March 2011 issue (PDF) for free here. Kurt's interview is on pages 6-8, and 30.
Kurt Elling was Liane Hansen's guest on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday, February 20, 2011. They were joined by legendary producer Don Was in a conversation about The Gate, including audio clips from Norwegian Wood, Golden Lady, Come Running to Me, and Blue in Green.
Listen to their 11:37 conversation here.
Kurt Elling is considered one of the best jazz vocalists of our time. He's recorded nine albums, received eight Grammy nominations and won his first Grammy Award last year for a live album of music by John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman.
Now, Elling is taking a few risks. He's teamed up with music producer Don Was — best known for his work with artists such as Bonnie Raitt, The Rolling Stones and Al Green — for a new recording called The Gate. The album features reinterpretations of The Beatles, Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder and more.
"Well, I wanted to work with [Elling] the instant I heard him, is what happened," Was says. "I was driving around in Los Angeles, and the local station played 'Not While I'm Around' from the Flirting With Twilight album. And I pulled over. I just had to wait and find out who that was singing, because it was truly one of the most stunning vocals I had ever heard."
Was and Elling recently spoke with Weekend Edition Sunday host Liane Hansen about making The Gate.
"Yeah, I've got to say, I've never been in a room with a guy who loves music more than Don," Elling says. "I mean, he would sit there ... listening to, like, whatever number pass I had made on something, and he would have the same beatific look on his face for the 10th, you know, percussion line that was being laid out. And even if you hadn't quite made it, he'd be like, 'No, man, you got one more in there. You can make that better. You know what you're doing.' Having Don in the room makes you feel like you're worth it."
Elling and Was also discussed putting new spins on versions of tunes like The Beatles' "Norwegian Wood," Stevie Wonder's "Golden Lady" and the jazz standard "Blue in Green."
Our good friends at Concord are taking pre-orders for The Gate in advance of the Feb. 8 release date. And they're offering a special discount to Kurt's many fans.
Pre-order from Concord before the Feb. 8 release date get The Gate for only $9.99 (plus shipping).
Just use promo code FBKURT2 when you check out at the Concord page.
There are audio clips for all nine tracks on the Concord page so you can sample before you buy.
And remember, Valentine's Day is coming. At this special price, buy an extra copy or two for gifts or to share with friends who haven't heard Kurt yet.
This special offer is good only before February 8 and only from Concord.
Share the love and spread the word!
Matte Kudasai is the opening track on Kurt Elling's new album, THE GATE.
"Matte Kudasai" is the Japanese phrase for "please wait." There is an indeterminate poetic flavor about that composition that has always stayed with and been relevant to me. You can't really pin down the vibe of it. Similarly, I wasn't able to pin down what I wanted to do with the piece. Thankfully, I had John Patitucci and Terreon Gully on board, and my good friend Laurence Hobgood. We were in the studio and they said, "What do you wanna do with this?" I said, "Well I'm not really sure. This is what it's about, this is how I feel about it, but you're really the experts at your instruments and you're great composers. I hired you so you could bring yourselves to the table as composers, so what do you think?" John looked at the page for a while, thought about what we talked about, and said, "Okay, let's try this. Let's roll some tape." He just started and Terreon joined him. Everybody else fell into that arrangement with him. We never really rehearsed it, it just came out the way it came out. I can't even tell you how pleased I am with it.
King Crimson's Adrian Belew, who wrote the lyrics for Matte Kudasai for Discipline, King Crimson's 1981 album, has said,
It means "Please wait for me." I found it in my Japanese phrase book and thought it sang well and made a nice title. As it turns out it's the one people most often ask about.
The New York Times is one of numerous publications to declare that Kurt Elling is the "standout male vocalist of our time,” and The Gate, Elling's follow-up to his Grammy-winning Dedicated to You, is among his strongest albums – and perhaps the finest of his career.
Produced by Don Was (Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan), The Gate is a musical collection in which boundaries cease to exist, a sensibility enhanced by producer Don Was, who had expressed the desire to work with Elling – an opportunity which Elling found irresistible.
"I first heard Kurt on the local jazz station and was knocked out by his exotic blend of soul, technique, intelligence and charismatic hipness,” Was recalls. "He made this diverse collection of songs his own – and we had a blast.”
"What Don brought to this project," said Elling, "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.”
The Gate points Elling in a new and satisfyingly emotional direction. He has somehow found a way to make a deeply personal statement out of the music of King Crimson, Joe Jackson, Stevie Wonder and the Beatles – in addition to providing a new and vibrant understanding of Miles Davis, Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock.
That Elling is first and foremost a jazz singer makes the work searching and enthralling. His phrasing is cool and meditative as he ventures into areas usually reserved for instrumentalists. As a lyricist, Elling breathes new life into gems previously known only for their melodies. "His words are informed by a powerful poetic spirit,” said poet and Bollingen Prize winner Robert Creeley. "Kurt Elling takes us into a world of sacred particulars.”
The Gate features longtime associate Laurence Hobgood on piano, Bob Mintzer on sax, John McLean on guitar, John Patitucci on bass, and two drummers, Terreon Gulley and Kobie Watkins – in addition to percussionist Lenny Castro. Said Elling, "The musicians on this recording inspired me to be…better.”
Elling developed his four-octave baritone in church choirs and later emerged on the national jazz scene in 1995 when Blue Note released Close Your Eyes. He made his Concord Records debut in 2007 with Nightmoves. All eight of his albums have been nominated for Grammys.
The Gate closes with a song that represents Elling's continued dedication to exploring jazz's past and blazing a trail for its future. Composed by the late Don Grolnick, "Nighttown, Lady Bright” features spoken words written by Duke Ellington and additional lyrics by Elling, who wished to close the album with a cinematic depiction of a jazz musician's life.
Said The Washington Post, "Since the mid-1990s, no singer in jazz has been as daring, dynamic or interesting as Kurt Elling. With his soaring vocal flights, his edgy lyrics and sense of being on a musical mission, he has come to embody the creative spirit in jazz.”
That spirit is in rich evidence on The Gate – and a musical feast awaits those who pass through.