Anyone familiar with top-drawer jazz will have savoured the rich 4-octave coffee-and-cigar voice of Kurt Elling. Those who haven't – yet – are missing out on an extraordinary sound: one of the most dazzling, educational – and entertaining – noises we're likely ever to hear. Control, risk, startling virtuosity, warmth, heritage, even humour: Elling and his athletic voice-box have it all.
On his latest album – "1619 Broadway –The Brill Building Project" – Duke Ellington's swinging "Tutti for Cootie" is there, sparkling like a new day, along with a dynamic soaring re-presentation of "Come Fly with Me." Elling's version of Sam Cooke's "You Send Me" is at once intelligent and refreshing, while his interpretation of the Carole King classic "So Far Away" manages to be subtly detached and, at the same time, sensual. There's an acutely-concentrated intelligence at work, manipulating our hearing and expectations.
The Grammy Award winner will be performing with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra on 21 May for what promises to be a provocative chill-out evening, another of those seeming contradictions in terms, which, to our delight, Elling can reconcile for us with ease.
"We're going to be doing compositions that stretch back into my recorded history – things written by friends like pianist Laurence Hobgood my collaborator. It's going to touch upon some of the favourites from my catalogue that fans might hope I'll be doing. The concert will also give everyone some surprises," he reveals.
He's been in Ireland before, playing the jazz festival in Cork and venues in Galway and Dublin, but this is his debut with the popular RTÉ Concert Orchestra.
On the afternoon we speak it is by telephone: he is in New York City preparing for an evening flight to Vienna for a couple of dates with his band before heading over to Poland for additional performances.
He has an extensive touring schedule and a number of projects in production. "I'm keeping busy," he says without a fuss. He needs to be challenged constantly, he says, adding that he and the Chicago Jazz Orchestra recently performed a Cole Porter show he'd written, and that he is learning music for a Benjamin Britten piece for a show in London, and preparing material for another show in New York – while also continuing to tour.
Jazz suits not only Elling's vocal talents; it satisfies his need to test and challenge his imagination and creativity, constantly.
Mastering the complexities and technicalities associated with performing jazz vocal is demanding enough – even for an artist of Elling's calibre – who often must improvise melody on the spot. That means deciding about things like time signature, volume, range, breathing, as well as what emotions to convey and what story to tell creating a melody in real-time – all while making the music accessible. Kurt Elling just happens to be a world-renowned exponent of an extreme form of jazz vocal: vocalese.
Vocalese is where an improvised solo is transcribed from a recording and then a lyric is written for the improvised music and subsequently sung.
Elling did not study music in a conservatory or university. He got his education from real life. When he was growing up, his father was choirmaster in a Lutheran church in Chicago where the family was living. The vocalist was surrounded by sacred music – his early inspiration. "I certainly had an experience of joy from making music and interacting with music from some of my earliest memories and that's something I feel. The actual technical process of learning all of that music was very helpful in terms of creating in me an awareness of the correct way of singing and of producing music technically and also a certain awareness of counterpoint or music theory through the experience of creating music."
His inspiration for writing and performing vocalese comes from the masters – Jon Hendricks and Eddie Jefferson. "I started to attempt writing vocalese lyrics as soon as I discovered what they had been up to all those years before. As soon as I figured out that one could write and perform a lyric based upon an instrumental solo that had been recorded then I went right to it. I had this more varied background and it gave me a perspective and some indication of what I would be interested in exploring through lyric writing. I think there's a wide open field of possibilities in vocalese in spite of the ingenuity and inventiveness of what Jon Hendricks – and chiefly Jon Hendricks – has brought to the table over all these years. There's a different perspective and there aren't that many people doing it and I think vocalese is an ideal outlet for the kind of sensibility that I have.
"I've worked extremely hard to get to the level of proficiency that I have – whatever level that is. No I did not go to conservatory but I feel like I went to the University of Von Freeman and the University of Ed Petersen and the University of Eddie Johnson," he says proudly listing off the jazz greats who've influenced him.
"So many things that I've learned I've learned from other musicians and my own hard work – and from trial and error and what we call 'sweat equity'."
Each of Elling's ten albums has been nominated for a Grammy; "Dedicated to You" won for Best Jazz Vocal Album in 2009. Asked to describe what he does the multi-talented Elling responds simply "I'm a jazz singer and I occasionally write some lyrics and write some songs."
Interpretation and deviation are all part of being a jazz singer; the singer always alert or receptive, hoping to capture the very best from the moment -- but not perfection. "If you are a perfectionist you don't have the same awareness or orientation toward risk – and jazz is first and foremost a genre in which risk is a premium. You wouldn't be able to reconcile perfection with the kinds of risks that jazz asks you to take, because if you're really risking it, then it's not going to be perfect. Yes I think I'm a risk taker."
Elling's route into jazz wasn't exactly direct. He had been studying for a masters degree at the University of Chicago Divinity School by day and playing jazz at night. Three years into his study, he realised his principal passion was for the music, and dropped out of college to pursue a jazz-singing career. He recalls his parents' reaction when he told them he was leaving college. "I think any parent would be concerned because you want your kid to make it, but I think they were a little bit more concerned because they weren't as familiar with the jazz idiom and what it would be like to be a jazz singer. They turned around as soon as they started seeing my picture in the paper fairly regularly."