Trying to define jazz singing is asking for trouble. Go one way and you box yourself into an essentialist view riddled with exceptions; go another and you wander into pop territory. Still, to paraphrase a famous dictum, you know great jazz singing when you hear it.
Grammy-winning singer Kurt Elling is the jazz voice of his generation. He has a warm, smooth and nimble baritone, impeccable diction and intonation, a sense of swing and a daring attitude that applies as much to his choice of repertoire as to his vocalise and improvisational approach.
That said, even Elling, who headlines the closing concert of this season's South Florida Jazz series on Saturday, seems to circle around the question of a definition.
"A jazz singer for me is someone who has fallen in love with a tradition in music and a history of musicians," he says, speaking on his way home to New York City after an engagement in Chicago.
"So a singer needs to learn about this music, needs to be dedicated to some family resemblance to the jazz singers of the past. … The tradition is a very specific one, but then … [one] integrates whatever one likes … and it becomes as individual and personal as your own history, providing you are ready to improvise any given night."
Elling, 45, was born into what he has described as "orthodox Lutheran churchly surroundings" in Rockford, Ill., where his father was a church musician and choral director. Jazz came into focus for him after he entered a master's degree program at the University of Chicago in the philosophy of religion. (He left one credit short of graduation.)
Elling began singing on Monday nights at a Chicago club, The Green Mill. There he met pianist Laurence Hobgood, who became a close collaborator and the anchor of his band, as well as saxophonists Ed Petersen and Von Freeman. His talent evident, he was soon signed to the Blue Note label.
Elling's first album, 1995's Close Your Eyes, earned a Grammy nomination, and he was on his way at just 27. He has been nominated for every subsequent recording, and won the 2009 Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album with Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman, a tribute to the 1963 landmark recording by saxophonist John Coltrane and singer Johnny Hartman.
His most recent albums are evidence not only of his singing mastery but of his broad taste. The Gate (2011) includes Herbie Hancock's Come Running To Me and Miles Davis' Blue in Green but also versions of Joe Jackson's Stepping Out and King Crimson's Matte Kudasai.
In last year's 1619 Broadway, he celebrated Manhattan's legendary Brill Building, where songwriters including Gerry Goffin, Carole King, Jerry Lieber, Mike Stoller and Burt Bacharach had offices, revisiting pop hits such as On Broadway (Lieber-Stoller), A House Is Not A Home (Bacharach-Hal David), So Far Away (King), You Send Me (Sam Cooke) and Come Fly With Me (Sammy Cahn-James Van Heusen).
In choosing material, Elling says he simply follows his intuition about "what I'll feel good about singing. I'm on the road 200 nights a year, so whatever I choose I have to be interested enough to sing it 200 times a year," he says.
"So it has to have 'architectural' integrity, it has to be interesting intellectually and it has to be something with which I can move forward in some way, either with an arrangement or additional lyric or something that hasn't been done before."
As for the emotional component of his interpretation, "I just try to embody the music as much as I can," he says. "It's not so much that I sing in character, but if the song is about heartbreak or specifically about coming to an empty house and pleading with a woman to come home and forgive me, I don't need to be in character to sing that because I've made that plea myself."