Even though jazz singer Kurt Elling is an intellectual, once on the stage or in the recording studio, his music breathes with emotion that stirs the soul. Once bound for the academic life, Elling interprets standards and creates originals, combining his restless intellect with an equally restless desire to communicate with audiences on a visceral level.
"We all know that jazz demands a cultivation of the mind. I am not the first or the only one to think of it as a kind of intellectualism - it is our prize and our challenge," Elling said. "Of course, we all know when music's too much in the head, and we define our greatest players by the way they are able to communicate directly from their emotional selves."
Elling's introduction to music came when he was growing up in Rockford, Ill., sitting with his father at the piano, turning the pages as he conducted concerts at a local high school. His father's dedication to creating music and teaching left a lasting imprint on the young Elling.
Elling, however, had no plans of following his father to become a choir director. Instead of going to music school, he attended the University of Chicago for Divinity School. There he studied philosophy and literature with the intention of becoming an academic professor.
But the siren call of music remained strong, and Elling began singing at a jazz club in Chicago once a week.
"This was beginning of not studying for school and instead boning up on the jazz life," Elling said. "Eventually I spent more time at night at clubs than I did in the library reading [German philosopher Friedrich] Schleiermacher."
Today, Elling remains a renaissance man, who is just as comfortable quoting a Czech poet from the last century as he is talking about scatting. He often incorporates images and references from writers such as Proust, Kerouac, Rumi and Neruda into his work. Poetry, acting and dancing have all become facets of his multi-disciplinary live events.
"Why limit yourself to one discipline or field of study? I don't see them as exclusive," Elling said. "There is so much in life to comprehend. One discipline feeds another."
Complementing his intellectual side is Elling's vocal style, which is emotionally riveting a commanding baritone voice spanning four octaves. The intensity of his performances literally turns his whole body into a jazz instrument.
Musically, Elling hearkens back to jazz vocalese pioneers Eddie Jefferson, King Pleasure and Jon Hendricks. His contemporary scat approach brings new life to the solos of Wayne Shorter, Keith Jarrett and Pat Metheny. Elling's most recent recording, "Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman," pays homage to two of jazz music's great musicians and their early 1960s collaborations but displays his unique, creative approach.
"I've tried to learn as much as I can about the great jazz singers to understand what makes them important, vital artists, but there is always something more to learn."