I'm trying to remember when I first heard Kurt Elling. I'm pretty sure it was while driving, on my way to teach a trumpet lesson many years ago, on CJRT, on Ted O'Reilly's show. I think Ted played Kurt's version of "My Foolish Heart" from Live in Chicago. After singing through the melody, and after Laurence Hobgood has played a gorgeous piano solo, the band suddenly drops into a very quiet vamp as Kurt works his magic, singing original lyrics and building the tension. He finally works his way back to the original tune, and then the band together does one of the most exciting builds I've ever heard before finishing the tune in fine fashion. (If you've heard this recording, I hope you know what I mean!) And from that moment I was hooked.
To me, Kurt Elling is what a jazz vocalist should be. He sings beautifully (he has an enormous range and makes full use of his falsetto), writes amazing lyrics, and IMPROVISES. I know scat (the jazz kind) is a bit of a sensitive topic - some love it, some hate it - but I grew up on Ella Fitzgerald, and I sometimes say that she ruined jazz vocalists for me: after listening to Ella, how could I not expect that every jazz vocalist would have such a command of the melody, such an understanding of the lyrics, and such a fluency when improvising? Kurt Elling has all of those things, and that's way he's been a hands-down favourite in my books since I first heard him. (And, with nine Grammy nominations, one Grammy Award, repeated accolades from the DownBeat Critics poll, JazzTimes Readers' Poll and Jazz Journalists Association Awards, I'm not the only one!)
Of course, there is so much more to Kurt Elling than improvisation. Check out this version of "My Foolish Heart" from the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2007. It's longer than usual, but watch the whole video - it's a lesson in the fundamentals of jazz singing (or even, I would argue, music in general): outstanding melodic interpretation, use of new lyrics, great band leading, use of tension and release...and no scat. And, to get all click-baity, you won't believe what happens at about 7:00...
For some contrast, here's a more up-tempo tune which shows off his ability as an improvisor but also his vocal technique and his comfort as a performer - here he's truly owning the stage. It's his interpretation of "Tight" by Betty Carter (another of my favourite vocalists).
For his 2015 TD Toronto Jazz Festival performance, Kurt Elling will be performing music from his recently released album Passion World, a mix of new arrangements and new compositions about love and heartbreak. This is music that will suit his voice perfectly: full of passion and emotion, crossing genres and international borders - these are all qualities Kurt beings to every performance. Here's his version of "Norwegian Wood", which demonstrates the original approach he brings to each tune he performs and records:
Kurt Elling and his quintet - Gary Versace (piano & organ), John McLean (Guitar), Clark Sommers (Bass), Christian Euman (Drums) - perform at Koerner Hall on June 23 at 8 pm. For complete information visit his concert page. This is going to be a treat!