Kurt Elling strikes an uncanny balance, enjoying widespread mainstream acceptance while retaining a sense of risk in the pursuit of his own idiosyncratic artistic impulse.
The highly decorated jazz singer shook things up in his own life a few years ago, surprising fans by moving to New York after decades of close association with Chicago.
"It's been exciting and fun and strange, in the way that life is when you take a risk like that," he says on the phone from Chicago, where he's spending some of the summer. "It's strange to continually be walking down streets and not to have a sense of the history, and to feel like you're still a tourist."
One result of the transition was last year's "1619 Broadway," an album of songs associated with the legendary New York songwriting factory known as the Brill Building. It offered a way for Elling to immerse himself in the musical history of his new milieu, and perhaps ease his sense of alienation.
"New York doesn't have the same heroes and the same villains that Chicago has, that you notice and remember as ghosts and literary figures and the architects of the place. That throws me off," he says. "I think they're always going to be secondhand stories in New York, as opposed to Chicago where I feel like they're my stories. That's an interesting and vaguely disconcerting feeling to have where you're living."
The jazz singer's catalog comes certified with industry bona fides — remarkably, each of Elling's 10 albums has earned a Grammy nomination. (He won in 2009, for his exploration of tunes culled from the 1963 collaboration between John Coltrane and vocalist Johnny Hartman.) But he's also been known to work spoken-word performances of Rilke poems into his live sets, and he composed a music-and-text exploration of Allen Ginsberg's work for Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company. His official bio may be unique among jazz musicians in its citation of approving quotes from poets Robert Creeley and Robert Pinsky.
Elling brings his quintet to the Shalin Liu Performance Center on Friday as part of the second annual Rockport Jazz Festival. The five-night event opens Wednesday, and also features performances by violinist Regina Carter, a duo set from Branford Marsalis and his longtime pianist, Joey Calderazzo, and others.
It's a return engagement for Elling. He was the first non-classical artist to play at the venue after its June 2010 opening, according to Tony Beadle, executive director of Rockport Music, which inaugurated the jazz festival last summer to augment the Rockport Chamber Music Festival for which the cozy seaside venue was principally designed.
The positive response to Elling's 2010 show demonstrated that jazz might have a home at the Shalin Liu.
"When you have a new building in an untried location, we had to try to figure out what genres of music play well here. We knew classical was pretty safe but we didn't know about much else," Beadle says. "It turns out the jazz fans are out there — and they're living on Cape Ann apparently, or nearby."
Pre-show artist talks are an additional feature of this year's festival. The success of the 2012 event, and anticipated success of the sophomore effort, has Rockport Music already looking toward a third go-round next summer.
Elling's smooth voice, acrobatic scat abilities, and affably hip stage presence make for a known draw. He's a songwriter in his own right, but even when selecting songs from the rock and pop worlds to cover (as he did for 2011 effort "The Gate"), he aims for reinvention. This isn't musical comfort food, seasoned blandly by a reliance on the familiar.
On "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)," Elling explodes John Lennon's lilting vocal melody to craft a deeply probing account of loneliness. A take on the standard "On Broadway" mines the street-level desperation of the lyric. For that song, Elling, 45, says he tapped into his early-career experiences getting turned down for jobs, as well as the struggle of peers still grinding it out in show business.
Scouting songs to reinterpret, Elling looks for something offering a chance for his own experiences to color the performance.
"If we can't figure out something we'd do with it that would add to its patina, or shed a new light on it, or juxtapose its own history with itself and turn it around," Elling says, "if I can't find something that comes from me, then we tend to walk away from it."
He draws inspiration from his influences not by copping moves, he says, but by finding a point of overlap where he can bring his own view to bear.
"I'm not going to be an innovator at the level of John Coltrane, but I can take his level of risk and personal sacrifice seriously in my own life and try to find out what 2013 sounds like, and what 2014 might sound like. That's much more important to me than just inhabiting a song. I think for most jazz people, that's what's most important. We want to find the new thing."