Kurt Elling is a jazz singer in the purest sense of the term.
Like a Billy Eckstine or Sarah Vaughan, the jazz characteristics of Elling's art come from his singing more than his song selection. Like those two singers, Eckstine can improvise a vocal line, placing himself in rare company: the singer who is as much an instrumentalist as the guy on a horn.
And while there is no shortage of those who can caress the standards of the Great American Songbook, Elling (who plays Tuesday at Anthology in San Diego) has always moved beyond the classical canon, bringing rock, pop, R&B and more into the jazz fold through his interpretations.
His 1995 debut contained only one chestnut, Rodgers and Hart's "Wait Till You See Her," sprinkled among a bunch of originals and a cover of a Dave Brubeck song. His 11th album, the just-released "The Gate," contains no standards ---- but does have jazz versions of songs by Stevie Wonder, the Beatles, Earth Wind & Fire and prog-rock band King Crimson.
"I try to stick with things that I can sing with honesty," Elling said by phone last week from his home in New York. "I think I make most of my decisions pretty organically. I don't really have a more intellectualized approach. After the fact, I can sure talk about stuff a lot ---- but when I make decisions, I really just follow what sounds good to me.
"When something whispers into my ear, either from my memory or (something) I trip over by happenstance, if it's something I feel I can get behind emotionally, I'll usually try to follow up.
"I want it to be a quality piece of writing. It's got to be something that, even if it starts out a little silly or facetious, I can make it into something ---- or cover over the parts that aren't quite as strong somehow.
"I really do feel the process is the same as when I stick with a straight-up jazz repertoire."
Elling also went out of his way to praise longtime musical director Laurence Hobgood for the choices that have shaped his recordings and career, saying the two men have "good shorthand" method of communication. "If it flies between us, then we go with it.
"In the case of 'Norwegian Wood' (on the new album), I remembered the song and I just started singing it with a kind of more contemporary way of singing that melody. Just having a little bit of a back beat under it and then just following the melody. I gave it to Laurence, and he came back with a bunch of brilliant harmonic ideas and then we got to work and polished it off."
The cover of the Earth Wind & Fire song "After the Love Has Gone" on the new CD was Hobgood's idea, Elling said.
"Since we were going with this more pop-oriented vein, he said we should do this as a slow waltz. I knew how it was going right away."
Echoing what jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter told the North County Times last year, Elling said the business side of jazz is getting tougher and tougher.
"A lot of people are having a hard time, and I know the industry is basically dissolving and trying to re-form. We're not getting the same return out of touring in terms of record sales we used to get."
Besides those who download pirated copies of albums for free, Elling said legitimate sales are also hurt by the overwhelming availability of free music via streaming Internet radio stations and even satellite radio.
"The problem is that between people just stealing music and people streaming it in different ways, people are being inundated with so much information and so much music that you have an entirely new landscape that you have to negotiate in order to reach the listener.
"At the same time, there are opportunities. I'm lucky that I enjoy touring as much as I do. I'm not going to make a living just making records."