Jazz singer Kurt Elling is an artist in constant forward motion.
A master vocalist with virtuoso chops and a deep appreciation of the genre, his career began in the jazz clubs of Chicago, where two of the scene's elder statesmen provided Elling with guidance and encouragement necessary to grow into a confident artist.
The thing is, neither of those mentors were singers.
More so than any jazz singer, Elling uses his voice as an instrument. And it's a muscular one, one finely tuned and able to accomplish breathtaking vocal feats, from soft, breathy romantic ballads to a spot-on imitation of Coleman Hawkins' thick, gaudy vibrato. He's also one of the best vocalese singers of all time — vocalese being the adding of lyrics to previously all-instrumental compositions or improvisations. Take, for example, his version of John Coltrane's "Resolution" — he takes the sax legend's blistering solo from part two of the four-part opus and renders a note-for-note cover of it, transforming it from a wordless solo into an incantation to the gods of the world's major religions.
Elling's latest release is Passion World, and though the album notably is more subdued and calm than previous efforts, the music itself masks a world of upheaval in Elling's career. He and his family moved from Chicago to New York City, and in 2013 Elling severed his longtime relationship with pianist Laurence Hobgood, with whom he had arranged and collaborated for almost two decades. Though Elling had nothing but gratitude for Hobgood — and several of the pianist's arrangements appear on Passion World — it's clear he's relishing the creative energy of the Big Apple jazz scene.
New Times called Elling ahead of two appearances at the Musical Instrument Museum.
New Times: There are couple of pop songs on Passion World, a cover of U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name" and Édith Piaf's "La Vie En Rose." Do you listen to a lot of music outside the jazz world?
Kurt Elling: Sure. And if you look back at my other recordings, I've always been grabbing things from the pop world. I've done things by the Zombies and I've done things by the Beatles. We're doing a thing now — one of the big hits by Journey.
When you look back at all the pop songs you've turned into jazz covers, what draws you to those songs? Is it the complexity, the beauty of the song?
It's whether there is something substantial there. It's the same list of items that would draw me to a jazz standard or any composition by a more recognizably jazz-oriented person. It's the quality of the construction. It's chiefly whether it strikes a resonant tone in my emotional life, whether I feel the lyric or the melody presents something that I feel give the right setting is something again I can get behind and deliver it with conviction.
Is there a set of criteria that make an objectively good song?
Well, there are certainly categories that seem like they're necessary. A song that's really going to last, it has to have the ability to create an emotional resonance in the listener. That, and does it sound good? There are 10 million ways to do it wrong and there's one way per song to do it right. And you know it when it's right. You just know it. All the specifics of things while you're working on a song, well, you can tell in your intuition. That's not good enough. Well, there's got to be a better way to have that "A" section lead to that second "A" section. That thing we did just now has been done a million different times. Well, we cheaped out over here . . . Whatever the piece requires, you have to fill in with quality and spirit and panache — whatever it is that composition needs. You know it when you've arrived and you know it when it hasn't yet arrived . . . I have notebooks full of stuff that has failed. Or that I haven't been "writer" enough to pull off yet. Or aren't thematically grounded enough. Or that I just haven't lived long enough to know what the answer is to whatever that creative question might be.
Moving toward that "good song" sounds like an interesting combination of artistic spirit and artistic craft — a left brain/right brain thing.
You've gotta go back and forth. You might have the spark of intuition for something, and that's obviously necessary. But it's not the full picture. And once you've had the intuitive side of your brain get free rein, you need the analytical side of the brain to complete the task. And you need to go back to your intuitive side in order to verify that what you've done is intuitively correct. So you've really got to have a healthy and vigorous conversation in your mind about what the right choices are.
Maybe it's different now that you're touring with people you haven't been playing with for decades, but I imagine that the songs still morph and change the more you play them live.
Yeah, they do. I have such a thick book at this point . . . But my chief objective is to play pieces of the future, to stake out new territory for myself and the band and the audience.
Is scat singing still a main part of what you do as a singer?
Sure, that will always be a part of it. I've got in my arsenal, thankfully, a reasonably developed ability to improvise. I've got spoken-word stuff I can do. I can improvise spoken word. There's straight beautiful romantic ballad singing. There's intricate vocalese work. There's duet stuff. I try to come at an audience from all different angles, and scatting is one of those bedrock pieces.
Do you still practice as much as you used to when you were younger?
Sure, I do. If you're going to strive for new material, you've got to get that stuff under your fingers as much as you can or as quickly as you can. Though it's new, I'm not here to have rehearsals in front of the audience. I'm here to bring the heat . . . I want to bring it, and the cats want to bring it.
Who are some of your non-singer influences in jazz?
The first people who come to mind are my Chicago influences: Von Freeman and Eddie Johnson. The two of those cats were very generous to me, as were small squadrons of Chicago musicians in the '70s and '80s. They really gave me my vocation because they called me back again and again and encouraged me and told me I belonged, which is something a young man needs to hear. Then there are people I've only heard through their recordings, Dexter Gordon . . . I've tried to learn what I can to understand the remarkable mystery that is Wayne Shorter . . . You'll notice a continuing theme because there are a lot of tenor saxophone players . . . The beautiful singing nature of that instrument that is also largely in my vocal range sings to me and broadcasts to me pretty directly.
Has your understanding of these giants of jazz — the Coltranes, the Dexter Gordons, the Wayne Shorters — has it evolved and changed over time?
In as much as I've come to any deeper understanding than when I first began, that would be true. It's more a matter of digging more deeply and coming to a closer and closer acquaintance or musical friendship that goes beyond . . . That's part of the beauty of the music. It seems like you can have very personal relationships and interactions with musicians long since gone, thanks to the recordings. It feels like a conversation to me. I don't think anyone of wisdom would dispute that what younger musicians do in interacting with the past is having long distance conversations. We're all remarking on what's come before us and we're learning on that while reaching out to the future. That's the nature of the experience or lineage of the music.