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.
I'm guessing there are no regrets about the academic career?
"No, not really," Elling says. "I was trying to think as clearly as I could about what was right for my life and for my vocation. I learned how to think about certain things and came to an understanding. But no regrets that I'm a jazz singer and not a university professor. I don't really think the way that professional academics in that part of the world think. And I don't really have a desire to think that way. I thought I did. I thought that was the direction I was being enticed to go, or pushed to go. But that wasn't the case." A moment's pause for thought. "I'd like to have the health care!"
In his autobiography Treat It Gentle, Sidney Bechet states: "That's what the music is ... a lost thing finding itself". I wonder if Elling's earliest encounter with jazz elicited a similar act of recognition.
"I liked the sound and identified with it long before I thought I was going to be a professional at it. Long before. And I definitely paid attention to it in very serious ways without thinking, Oh, let me be a part of this. It just didn't even occur to me that that was really going to be possible, for the longest time. Part of the reason why it worked out for me was that older musicians repeatedly encouraged me, and put their arm around me and said, 'Hey, you're with us'. Even though what I was doing was rudimentary, and I think they acknowledged that plenty of times, they wanted to see it go. Cats hear an awful lot of singers. I think a lot of times singers play at jazz, just because they can memorise the lyrics to a standard, but they don't really have a concept of what jazz people actually do. So l would come on and I would take chances and I would try to find a new way through a song and try to swing -- so they dug that."
Having served an invaluable apprenticeship with a trio of tenor sax stylists in his native Chicago -- Eddie Johnson, Von Freeman and Ed Petersen -- it's not entirely surprising that Elling's style owes as much to instrumentalists as it does to singers. And it's not just the trio's command of line or narrative sense that gets reflected in the actual work.
"You learn as much from how they act on the bandstand, how they count out the tempo, how they finish a song, what choices they make," says Elling. "Those are three really different tenor sounds. Eddie was invited to join Duke's band and he had a very swooping, swinging, beautiful, buttery tone. Von, of course, is among the most unique sounding -- he's played everything from straight-up free music and avant-garde things, and he's obviously a stablemate of Johnny Griffin's. You can hear it in the sound, you can hear it in the approach. And he comes out of Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, and in any given solo you can hear all those things. And then Ed Petersen really coming out of Trane, and coming out of Mingus, and a lot more contemporary sounding things. So there's a lot to be learned from the old-school guys, and the fact that they were all unique in their approach was a lesson in itself. They all play the same instrument and yet they each have a signature sound. And why should singers be any different."
Although initially planned as a demo, the singer's 1995 debut album, Close Your Eyes, sounds remarkably fully formed. Many of the key components of his style are introduced in some shape or form. Did the delay in terms of coming to record the debut -- the singer was 27 at the time -- pay significant dividends?
"It seems like that, in retrospect. You don't plan ahead for that kind of thing, but it is really good advice that you can give to young people to go out and have a life, have your heart broken, make mistakes and try creative things. Absolutely. Then you have something to write about. Yeah, I think the elements are all there. Obviously there's stuff that's rougher than I would like it to be. I can hear, when I listen to the things that we do now, what I know that I didn't know then: technically, theoretically. On the rare occasions when I do listen back to a record I can definitely say, 'OK, yeah, I hear what you're going for, man. That's right, you're brave'."
There's now a substantial body of work to look back on. What recordings does he regard as being especially important landmarks?
"Close Your Eyes and The Messenger indicate a direction that we're going down: a much more comprehensive approach to the number of things that one can do on a record. And we follow up on that through Man In The Air and Nightmoves. If one is captured more by Laurence's [pianist Laurence Hobgood] arranging thing, or just by the sound of the voice, and you like a more romantic -- not necessarily romantic, although romance is a heavy part of it -- but just the actual sound, then I think Flirting With Twilight is a very good record for that. And obviously Dedicated To You has that in spades as well. You know, the male voice doesn't really even become itself until you're 32, 33 years old. And now I'm 43, and when we recorded Dedicated I was, whatever, 40 or 41, so now my voice really sounds like what it sounds like. And to have that sound in a live setting, recorded at the quality it was recorded at -- I have to thank the engineers on that project for really capturing a richer and more full-play of sonic frequencies than we've captured on every record."
And so to The Gate, the singer's follow-up to the aforementioned, Grammy-winning Dedicated To You. Featuring his longstanding collaborator Hobgood on piano, saxist Bob Mintzer, guitarist John McLean, bassist John Patitucci, plus drummers Terreon Gully and Kobie Watkins, with the experience that he's built up in terms of studio hours, would Elling say that the success of a recording essentially rests on some unforeseen, but hoped for, alchemical reaction?
"You definitely can't predict what's going to happen if it's cats coming together for the first time like that. I've been familiarising myself with them and making myself available to them as individuals over a certain span of years. Terreon and I have sat in a little bit here and there, and the same with Patitucci and me, but never together. But I had an expectation about their generosity as musicians, and about their skill level, as artists. Certainly the alchemical activity that went on came out as well or better than I expected."
Apart from being supremely talented musicians, you imagine that someone with as focused an approach as Elling would have certain other criteria in mind when selecting musicians for a project. What are the specific characteristics that he looks for?
"I would say there are two things. One, a willingness to engage and support the musical vision that I'm trying to achieve, and to want to add something of value to that rather than trying to take it over and steer the boat. The other thing would initially seem to be in direct contradiction to that. I really look for people who are going to be inventive and who are going to bring musical ideas to the table that exceed my imaginative grasp. So there's a kind of umbrella ideal of collaboration that I think both of those ideas fit into. And that was certainly the case with those cats. They came in and they were like OK, what do you want us to play, let's make this as great as we can make it for you. And as they did that -- say on 'Matte Kudasai' -- I didn't know how far we should take it or how far we should stray from the original and where it really wanted to go. I just knew that there was a sense of something that I wanted to get to, and I talked to them about the emotional appeal of the piece and the feeling I wanted to get out there to the world. But I didn't know exactly what I wanted them to play and so I just looked them in the eye and said 'Cats, you know, this is one of the reasons why I got you on this gig, because you know what you should do more than I know what I should tell you to do. Here's the emotion I have in mind, here's the piece, what do you think?' And John Patitucci looked at it for a minute, and he started pulling on strings, and we rolled tape and in one or two takes we had it. Again, it was in excess of what I could have articulated as a request."
It's interesting that he makes reference to the King Crimson album opener: Kurt Elling Does Prog Rock. That's definitely going to surprise a lot of people. And the kind of ethereal place that the band take the song to, achieving an almost oceanic state, is all the more incredible given that there was no rehearsal.
"It was the most organic event of the whole experience by way of how much we did or did not talk anything down," says Elling. "I should say that that idea extends to John McLean as well, who plays guitar throughout the record. He has an ability to comprehend what he can add to a notion that we're trying to develop with hardly any direction whatsoever. It's the ability to think of things compositionally, from the standpoint of OK, well I play this instrument. Here's what's happening in this moment. This is what I can best add to make this a coherent musical statement overall." And that's a very heavy thing, and that's why I say there's a humility in it, because it's cats giving themselves to the greater project. But it's also the artistry of it and a healthy amount of ego to have the confidence to project their individual compositional sense to the benefit of the greater whole."
Of course, having artists of the calibre of Patitucci and Gully on the date raises the whole bar, musically speaking. And in terms of how this affects Elling's own performance during the recording process, does it perhaps allow him to take even greater risks?
"I'll tell you how it feels on the inside, it feels like I better start singing something! If everybody's got that level going, you know, I've really got to bring my A-plus game. There were plenty of times in this session where I looked back in through the window at Don as if to say 'Wow, maybe I hired guys that are so much better than I am that they're just going to outshine me on the whole thing'."
So it really does make him want to raise his game, as well?
"Oh, I better. I better. Or I'm just going to be embarrassed when the record comes out."
Taking the collection of songs as a whole, it seems to hang together seamlessly. All of the material seems to occupy the same aesthetic orbit. Was he happy with how the organic quality of the set came together? "Yeah, very much so. There are two ways to approach that. Certainly, going into the studio you have a very limited amount of time as a jazz person -- because you have a limited amount of money to spend. You have to be as prepared as you can possibly be as the band leader. You have to be able to articulate what you want and the arrangements have to be ready. But at the same time, one never really knows what the music is going to sound like until you're in the room and you're playing it. Then you have to be willing to let go of your prejudices about what you think is going to happen and accept -- and find delight in -- what's actually being produced. And because of the calibre of the musicians I was able to pull together for this project, that was not a difficult task."
And working with Don Was. Did he meet, or possibly even exceed, expectations?
"I already knew that he was going to support and protect my ideas, and me personally, in the studio. But neither Laurence nor I were quite prepared for the amount of, just blissful, welcoming of our ideas and of the sounds. I mean here's a guy who would sit in the room listening to a percussion take -- you know, take number eight -- with as much interest and focus and love and a big smile on his face, as he would give listening to a final mix of any of our takes. Don just wants to hear what the musicians have to offer and to support that, and within that to help guide the project so that the artists are making the best choices possible. If you're walking in the room and it's Don Was saying 'Man, that stuff sounds great', there's not that many people who are going to walk in the room and say it doesn't sound great. To have somebody of his calibre just really showing love, man, throughout the whole process -- and as I say supporting choices and supporting creativity and supporting risk-taking and not being worried about the clock and only wanting the best for the artist and the project -- I just found that to be so endearing and propulsive and strengthening. It was really one of the most delightful and profound studio experiences I've ever had."
When he's composing lyrics for an existing piece of music -- take, for example, 'Samurai Cowboy' on The Gate, which is based on the opening track of Marc Johnson's Bass Desires ('Samurai Hee-Haw') -- is he inspired by the prevailing mood of the 'host' song, or does he see the lyrics as coming from somewhere quite separate? "I definitely try to pair up the emotional direction that I hear coming from the original composition -- I want to mirror that, I want to amplify that. I try to do that in every case, even in the cases where I've adapted ideas from poets like Rilke, or Pablo Neruda, or people like that."
As anyone who's heard his extraordinarily moving take on the Michael Franks title track to his 2007 album, Nightmoves, will acknowledge, the singer has developed one of the finest noses for rooting out great songs.
"I remembered it from years gone by," Elling recalls. "And the same thing struck me about it that struck you. It's a beautiful, hip song that develops an emotional punch by its more reserved and intellectual approach to romance and broken-heartedness."
Does he compile a continuously expanding wish list of songs that he thinks might be suitable for the Elling-Hobgood treatment, or do songs tend to suggest themselves to him more serendipitously?
"I would say that the experience I have is much more day to day. I might think of a general direction for a forthcoming project but that will be based on maybe some cornerstone pieces that I've already found. Like, for instance, I've already written a lyric for Wayne Shorter's 'Face On The Barroom Floor' from his Weather Report years. I'm looking forward to recording that, but that's going down the road of a specific project I have coming up. But let's say that I have that and two other things that I think are really killers, then it's just a matter of being on the road and keeping my ears open for things that seem to work and feed our live experience. I always want to be surprising the audience and giving them something that they won't have had the chance to hear on any of my records. I really want to reward them and give them a reason or two for coming out. I want people to come out of my shows overwhelmed -- emotionally, intellectually -- because I want to keep doing this."
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