There was a time when Kurt Elling seemed destined for a different path altogether. In his youth, his thoughts were of academia; at graduate school in Chicago, he was wrestling with the complexities of the philosophy of religion until he began to drift towards the idea of making jazz the centre of his life. Depressed by what he saw as the arid and increasingly solipsistic atmosphere of the seminar room, he spent more and more of his time falling asleep over Kant and escaping across the tracks to sit in with local jazz veterans.
It took him a full three years finally to make the leap. Since then, the 42-year-old poet manquÃ© has established himself as perhaps the most distinctive singer on the American scene. Drawing on a Beat ethic and a rich baritone that somehow combines echoes of both Frank Sinatra and John Coltrane, he delivers performances that can be as intense as a poetry recital, yet as unbuttoned as a jam session.
Many singers who have caught the recording industry's attention tend to fall into a conventional retro category. Elling â€” like the pop star turned bebopper Curtis Stigers â€” brings personality to the game, as he demonstrated last month in a mercurial late-night show at the Cork Jazz Festival. A bluesy stream-of-consciousness monologue sat alongside deliciously romantic numbers from his new album, a celebration of Coltrane's classic encounter with Johnny Hartman, the balladeer who enjoyed a posthumous surge of fame thanks to the soundtrack for The Bridges of Madison County.
The very mention of a tribute album makes some of us jazz-lovers nervous. We have waded through so many of them in the past 20 years that it feels as if musicians are desperate to hide in the shadow of giants. Fortunately, Elling's disc, with its unsentimental string arrangements and the energetic playing of Laurence Hobgood, his long-time pianist and co-writer, never becomes just another lifeless journey into the past.
"One way to get it wrong,â€ Elling explains over lunch before his Cork concert, "is to feel so indebted to the jazz tradition, to feel so unworthy, that you don't feel able to innovate. As I see it, the whole of jazz history has been handed to us as a wonderful gift. But if somebody gives you a gift, it's yours now. The reverential attitude is the death of it. It's ironic, because it comes from love. If you try to be like your father too much, you'll never be yourself.â€
He is the first to admit that he has sometimes struggled to get the balance right. Fifteen years ago, before he had released his debut album, I heard him play at a sleek club on the Upper West Side, where the clientele, young and well scrubbed, had clearly come to hear tasteful background music while they chattered and compared careers. Elling, of course, was the exact opposite, his angular phrasing ricocheting off the stainless-steel fittings. The audience drew back, the singer pushed harder, and soon you sensed an unmistakable air of resentment among the punters. Elling was not entertaining, he was hectoring.
At Cork, there were still moments when he caught his listeners off balance, but he is now much more adept at drawing in a crowd as he embarks on his journey into the unknown. "God, I was petrified in those days,â€ he chuckles, recalling that night in New York. "A lot of the frustrations in those early days came from the fact that I was young, and I was scared that I didn't really deserve the amount of press and attention I was getting, even though I knew that what I was trying to do was valuable â€” I knew I wasn't executing it as well as I hoped. I think I struggled, in the past, to win people's hearts. I know I've sometimes been overbearing with virtuosity, that sense of 'Let me show you something'.â€
Perhaps he also felt compelled to make up for lost time. Born into a devout Lutheran family (many of his relatives are ministers, and his father is a church organist), he did not begin listening to jazz until he was a history undergraduate. Not coming through the conservatory system â€” which has changed the face of jazz, for the worse as well as for the better â€” has certainly left its mark on his approach to music-making: "I'll never be as good a sight-reader as someone who's done four years in music school,â€ he concedes. "But on the plus side, I come to it as people did before jazz became part of the academy. I have a rougher, more bluesy element to what I do.â€
Given his background, does he still consider himself to be religious? Not really, he says, although he takes his daughter to church so that she will be, as he puts it, "culturally literateâ€. But yes, he does feel that, in an odd sort of way, he is doing his bit for what he calls "the family businessâ€. Jazz has given him a way of savouring a transcendent experience. "I'm joining music with the ecstatic,â€ he says. "But is it really that radical? If you think about it, it's still a room full of people fulfilling a certain ritual. It's just that it happens at night, with hipper clothes...â€