To the untrained ear, scat singing can sound like gibberish. How could the spouting of so many notes at a time â€” sung in syllables that sound more like baby babble than musical language â€” possibly be meaningful?
Talk to jazz vocalist Kurt Elling for a few minutes and he just might change your mind. For a man who has earned a Grammy nomination for eight of his nine albums (the ninth was released just this year, and Grammy nominations haven't come out yet) scat singing â€” just one of the many arrows in his proverbial quiver along with a four-octave range and a classic, Frank Sinatra sound â€” is about taking risks that allow pure, utterly transparent self-expression.
"When improvisation is properly applied, it is compositional thinking, sped way up,â€ says the 43-year-old singer, who will perform Tuesday at Blues Alley.
"We have to answer all the same questions that a composer answers: Fast or slow, loud or soft, many notes, few notes, when to take a breath, how much one instrument is interacting with another.â€‰.â€‰. . We have to do that in real time, in front of an audience, in interaction with one another.â€
Elling came from the other side of the tracks, at least as far as jazz is concerned. His father was a Lutheran church organist, and so he grew up on a steady diet of classical (or what Elling refers to as "straightâ€) music. As a graduate student at the University of Chicago's divinity school, Elling started to develop an interest in jazz. He began sitting in at Chicago nightclubs, forming relationships with musicians such as tenor saxophonists Von Freeman and Eddie Johnson, who had played with the likes of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington. Elling began listening to jazz recordings in the confines of his basement studio and memorizing instrumental solos by the greats, note for note.
At first, says Elling, over the phone from New York, where he is now based instead of his native Chicago, "I was really scatterwalling most of the time. I was out of control in many ways.â€
But, he says, "I think my intention was there and my love for the music was apparent. And there are very few singers who get up and desire to take the kinds of risks that jazz musicians routinely need to be taking.â€
For Elling, those risks involved scatting, as well as "vocalese,â€ the practice of writing lyrics to recorded instrumental solos championed by singers such as Jon Hendricks and Eddie Jefferson.
But beyond the willingness to take a musical plunge or two, Elling says a truly great jazz solo also has a story to tell with a clearly discernible beginning, middle and end. "Not only is it all these technical things, all these technical questions and answers, it is also a transparent expression of your emotional life, your inner life.â€
On his latest album, "The Gateâ€ â€” an amalgam of compositions from the later half of the 20th century that signals a departure from the jazz standards on earlier albums â€” scatting takes something of a back seat to the material itself. Instead, Elling applies the same interpretive freedom of scat singing to the song lyrics.
"The object is to approach at least the phrasing of a song and the delivery of a lyric and a melody in such a way that it belongs to a particular moment, that it is not unduly resonant of the way you've done it in the past,â€ he says.
The same jazz ethos, he says, is still present in a larger sense. The first track on the album, for example, a cover of King Crimson's 1981 song "Matte Kudasai,â€ started as a vague road map and was recorded in just a couple of spontaneous takes.
The songs on "The Gateâ€ are culled from artists as disparate as Earth, Wind & Fire, the Beatles and Miles Davis. But even as his repertoire grows more diverse, Elling is constantly striving to become more eloquent, more purposeful.
Elling calls to mind a famous saying in jazz: "The material is immaterial.â€
"You can start from any source material, and you can approach it with a jazz ear, and then it will become a jazz moment.â€