Is the Chicago-born musician the greatest living jazz singer? He's back in Britain this month to bolster his case.
Outside it's minus 14C; inside Oslo's Jazzscene club "the cats are cookin' â€. Not my words, but those of Kurt Elling as he introduces the Danish big band helping to swing the well-heeled and well-jumpered Norwegians.
Never one to skimp on the jive talk, the American with his velvet jacket, op-art shirt and Jimmy Carr hair, admires "this hip-looking roomâ€ and commends a "groovyâ€ solo. He sings a swinging remake of Joe Jackson's Stepping Out, a poignant Norwegian Wood and makes you care again about Frank Sinatra's old warhorse In the Still of the Night.
No wonder he is "the best singer of his generationâ€, according to The Penguin Guide to Jazz, and this very newspaper has dubbed him "nothing short of hypnoticâ€. Elling jokes, croons, scats and shows off his vocalese â€” the old-school art of adding lyrics to existing instrumentals. Sometimes he seems to be sending up the hep-cat persona: after a roaring saxophone finale he drops to his knees, points two index fingers at the culprits and purrs "Niceâ€.
Elling is a vocal master with an exquisite control of pitching and tone. He's forever nominated at the Grammys and finally won last year. At the London Jazz Festival his shows have been packed with young vocalists paying homage. He is â€” a dread phrase for all that it implies about earnings â€” the singers' singer.
Elling is back this month in Britain with a new album, The Gate, on which he and his collaborator on piano Laurence Hobgood apply their powers of re-invention to tunes by Earth Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder and John Lennon. Those with only a passing interest in the doings of jazz may well be asking at this point why they haven't heard of him. How come it's Michael BublÃ© who sells 25 million CDs? What about Harry Connick, or Tony Bennett? He's not dead yet.
The answer, as Elling patiently explains, when we meet over coffee the next day, is that he is doing something rather different. "Michael BublÃ© seems like a talented guy. He sings his ass off, and I wish I had some of those record sales. He has this great natural charisma ... but I don't think there's much improvising there,â€ he says diplomatically.
"What I do is a lot more esoteric. I mean scatting alone is off-putting for a lot of people. I had a room-mate in college and I'd play him Ella Fitzgerald and he'd say, 'I'm not into that booby-do stuff.' Well, fair enough. Or audiences have heard people scatting who don't know what they're doing and it just sounds bad or silly.â€
To truly merit the title "jazz singerâ€ a vocalist must be able to contribute as much as any instrumentalist. That means being able to improvise, or scat, and there is nothing supper-club polite about Elling's vocal forays. In Oslo he throws his head back in multisyllabic torrents of sound, from growl to falsetto. It is vital, it is electric, but it wouldn't do for diners spooning crÃ¨me brulÃ©e. "I measure the scatting out, depending on how much the audience are ready for it and how much I feel like doing,â€ says Elling with a smile. Jazz should be the sound of "music surprising itselfâ€, not a litany of clapped-out standards, and if that may push him towards "the periphery of thingsâ€, so be it.
Elling was born in Chicago, the son of a Kapellmeister at a Lutheran church. He honed his technique in choirs, learning counterpoint from Bach motets. At graduate school he studied for a masters in philosophy of religion. He hoped to work for the World Council of Churches or "to write big thick books on philosophy that probably no one would readâ€. But he was becoming fascinated by jazz and started sitting in with the veterans at Chicago clubs. He is a restless soul and no two records have sounded the same as he sheds new light on the old songbook faithfuls and mixes in new material . He can't quite get his head around Radiohead, as so many jazz groups have, but BjÃ¶rk is a genius. "She paints on the skies, totally unafraid, quite profound ... quite profound.â€
He's playing 210 gigs this year, which means long months away from his wife Jennifer, a dancer he married in 1996. They have a five-year-old daughter, Luiza. "I talk to her on Skype every day and sometimes they travel with me. It's not perfect, but there is no perfect. This life [on the road] is hell ... and it's heaven, too.â€
In Chicago the family bought their Hyde Park apartment from Barack Obama. Elling performed at benefits when Obama was his state senator. In 2009 he sang Nature Boy at the White House. So is he chums with the President? Elling is reluctant to boast friends in high places. "No, no, my contact amounts to me being grateful they remember me at all and that he mentions me once in a blue moon. â€
As for the apartment, no, Obama did not leave any shopping lists or doodles that might subsequently have been worth something. Elling's family are now based in New York and might one day sell the Chicago place. "I wouldn't mind if that connection added to its value,â€ he laughs. Perhaps he should think about a plaque.
The day we meet Elling is in the middle of a snow-laden trek through Scandinavia that involves eight-hour bus drives. ("We played up near Hamlet's castle the other day in Elsinore. Man, it was freezing. No wonder he was depressed.â€) But Elling has a sense of mission not every 43-year-old singer far from home would possess. "I'm not having a career. This is a vocation,â€ he says firmly. "I might joke about the money, but I would do this anyway. Improvising melody in real time in front of an audience â€” that's a pretty remarkable thing to attempt. To do that and have an emotional experience with an audience, that's pretty astonishing. For 90 minutes or two hours I get to make people happy and that for me is enough in life.â€ He's surely right; a gig doesn't get much groovier than that.