Jazz sure needed Kurt Elling when he eased onto the scene in the 1990s. Male jazz singing had been in a rut ever since the demise of the swing era. Elling, who performs this weekend at SFJAZZ Center, shook off the cobwebs with a brashly original style that combined influences ranging from Beat poetry to existentialist philosophy.
What wasn't so clear, at least until later, is that Elling is also a bit of a softie. For all his chutzpah as a scat singer and story improviser (he calls it "ranting"), the Chicago native still treasures the old ring-a-ding, as he'll demonstrate at SFJAZZ with another installment in his ongoing appreciation of Frank Sinatra.
Elling explains that while "vocalese" practitioners such as Mark Murphy and Lambert, Henricks & Ross were bigger influences on him as a developing musician. But an serious male jazz singer is kidding himself if he doesn't consider and embrace the Sinatra legacy.
"I'm not sure you could call yourself a self-respecting jazz singer and not have dug in as deeply as possible into what Sinatra did," Elling told the (Portland) Oregonian, "because that really defined a whole area of approach, especially in big band settings. Especially there. I don't know how you could sound good and not have some major influence from Sinatra."
Characteristically, though, Elling comes at Sinatra his own way, with fresh arrangements for many tunes and just enough room for spontaneous invention. Because this is not a man who does things the easy way.
Elling started singing in church (his father was a choirmaster) but started to explore jazz while studying philosophy and religion in college. He honed his style working wedding gigs for several years before making his recording debut in 1995 with Close Your Eyes, the first in an unbroken string of 10 Grammy-nominated albums.
Elling's dramatic style, marked by full use of a four-octave range and some of the most committed scat singing this side of Ella Fitzgerald, made him an instant standout, as did his impressionistic original lyrics. Yet this is also a guy who obviously knows and appreciates his predecessors, as shown on albums such as Dedicated to You, his sterling 2009 tribute to the influential collaborations between John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman.
Elling says the main motivation for him is to keep things fresh, a priority that, among other things, recently led him to split with longtime pianist and arranger Laurence Hobgood.
"I don't want to stagnate or take a break from challenging work," he recently told the Chicago Tribune. "I don't want to take it easy. I want to figure what's really going to turn me on and challenge me for the next whole segment...I moved to New York (in 2008) for a reason, and it was so that I could be challenged, to move beyond my own comfort zone and to learn things and to be up-ended by several collaborators."
That attitude is reflected in Elling's advice to aspiring singers. Work hard and practice relentlessly, he writes in his FAQ section, but have a life, too. "Ideas come organically based on the imaginative input one has done by reading, seeing plays, falling in love, having long talks - and, most importantly, being alone and quiet for long enough periods so that one begins to hear one's own voice speaking and singing from within. There is no faking this and there are no short cuts."