It's been three years since the last Kurt Elling album was released, the masterful Man in the Air. So when he called me two weeks ago from a hotel in Reading, Pennsylvania, the first thing I asked was when do we get to hear a new one?
"We're shooting for a September release," he said. "I've had so many transitions—I've started working with [high profile manager] Mary Ann Topper this year; my wife and I had our first child about four months ago; we moved our house a couple of months before then. It's been one thing after another.
"I've been writing, and we've been out on the road trying out new arrangements. I'm always trying to work on something. I want to bring people new information whenever I can. In my mind, I know a bunch of tunes I want to do."
Elling, the most honored male jazz singer of the last decade, kicks off this year's Ella Fitzgerald Music Festival at CNU Wednesday night fronting the university's big band and vocal ensemble. Each of his six albums has been nominated for a Grammy and he's consistently placed at the top of the major jazz polls since his recording debut. But he was a relative latecomer to the genre he now commands.
"My father was a church musician," he explained, "so I grew up doing straight music. I learned much of what I knew then from Bach counterpoint and from Brahms, and was always involved in choral music all the way up until graduate school. So a lot of my technique, or some of my good habits, comes from that, all the technical stuff that goes into it."
He didn't discover jazz until he was a student at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
"Some cats down the hall from me were playing Herbie and Dave Brubeck," he recalled. "And there was a Mark Murphy concert that I went to before I'd actually heard his recordings--that turned me on to a whole lot of stuff and showed me what it was like to be a jazz singer. But I didn't have the idea in my mind to become a professional until I had sort of crapped out of graduate school and was tending bar and moving furniture and that sort of thing. I said, 'You know, the thing that I really want to do with my life would be to try this out.' By that time I had been encouraged by so many musicians on the Chicago scene."
His religious studies have obviously influenced his writing sensibilities. His lyrics seem to come from a deeper, more philosophical place than your typical pop song or standard. I wondered if he had planned to go into the ministry himself.
"People had thought about it for me," he said. "What I had in mind was some vague notion of academic work coupled with something at the World Council of Churches, trying to use it as a diplomat/United Nations sort of person.
"My father was a church musician, my opa was a minister, I must have five first cousins who are ministers, my brother-in-law is a minister. It's surrounding me. But I never really felt comfortable proselytizing in that kind of way. I'm happy to proselytize for joy and for human possibility and for the feeling that you get from an incredible jazz solo or an incredible musical experience or from people connecting with each other. All of the stuff that's on the positive tip, I'm in favor of. But I'm not very keen on specific dogmatic ideas.
"I realize the value of our religious heritage, and I dig what it can do for people and what it has done for me in my life, but I can't really hang with specific dogma. I can see that it creates more division and consternation and separation than it creates greater connection and unity. And the level of danger is extremely high at this point—we're using it to blow each other up, quite literally, and it's not just coming from the Muslim world. The reaction from the far right in America is equally dangerous. The reason we haven't suffered as much is because we have an incredible information and technology infrastructure coupled with a strong tradition of secular humanism."
Kurt Elling has built his musical infrastructure on a diverse foundation of influences with the help of longtime collaborator, pianist Laurence Hobgood. Besides impressive original material, he has written lyrics to a vast array of instrumental compositions by Coltrane, Zawinul, Donald Byrd and Herbie Hancock. He's touched on the Great American Songbook and reinvented The Zombies' "Time of the Season" and The Association's "Never My Love." He's sung with the Yellowjackets and Bob Mintzer's Big Band, and essayed Walt Whitman's poetry on Fred Hersh's Leaves of Grass last year.
And he is always full of surprises. Wednesday's performance with the CNU jazz ensembles will be no exception.
"When you think big band stuff," he said, "you naturally think Frank Sinatra. And I have a real affinity for the stuff that Frank does. I think sometimes people are surprised when I come across with that, not only because they're delighted that someone is performing that material, but they're surprised because people think of me as unique, outré, bizarre—whatever the right neutral word is for it. They don't think Kurt Elling plus Frank Sinatra, and yet Frank is one of the guys that I spent a lot of time checking out and learning from."
He's spent a lot of time checking out and learning from many of his jazz forebears:
"A lot of it is instinctive, but it comes from what I think of as a pretty thorough study of the jazz singers who have come before me. I just fell in love with all those sounds and wanted to cop what the most essential ingredients were in terms of phrasing, sound, concept, and to figure out what that meant for me. To me, that's like the baseline of what jazz singers should be doing—learning what has come before, and being thorough in that study. That shows you what has been possible and now it's for you to figure out, given your unique gifts, what's possible for you. I don't know how you would learn to be a jazz singer any other way."