A conversation with Kurt Elling

As arguably the most prominent male jazz vocalist of his Generation X era, Kurt Elling has a plethora of gigging and recoding outlets through which he can ply his commanding vocal delivery and four-octave range.
“I'm involved with a nice mixture of things,” said the 48-year old Chicago native, by phone from his home in New York City. “I get to do orchestra dates and big band dates.”

Though comfortable in a broad range of settings, Elling shines brightest when performing with his own band. When he headlines Stanford University's Bing Concert Hall at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 27, he'll be interacting with a quartet that includes John McLean on guitar, Gary Versace on piano and Hammond B3 organ, double bassist Clark Sommers and drummer Kendrick Scott.

“Thankfully I've been able to develop a good relationship with a really swinging band, which is a real blessing,” he said.

Elling has been involved in other events in Northern California, including SFJAZZ's concert last fall at Grace Cathedral celebrating the 50th anniversary of Duke Ellington's first Concert of Sacred Music. (He took up the role originated by Jon Hendricks, one of his vocal inspirations.)

In 2006, he and Roberta Gambarini were the singing protagonists in Dave and Iola Brubeck's ambitious “Cannery Row Suite,” which debuted that September at the Monterey Jazz Festival.

Released last summer by Concord Jazz, “Passion World” is Elling's eleventh and most recent album. It celebrates love songs from throughout the world with lyrics sung in their native tongues.

“Not exclusively but we'll definitely reference it,” he said, when asked how much material will be drawn from “Passion World” at his Stanford performance.

“I've been writing since then, and I'm interested in trying to move forward. At the same time, we will give the people who have heard us before in the past some things they might want,” he said. “We'll perform a couple of favorites here and there.”

When complimented on the multilingual approach that he took to “Passion World,” he replied, “Well, I'm just trying to be educated and cover all the bases, you know?” Elling said he speaks just “American” and at a “menu” level in few other languages.

“I can get along in a bar or at a restaurant in German, in French and the tiniest bit in Spanish,” he reported. “After that it's just guesswork for me.”

It's anything but guesswork when he commits a song for now and posterity by recording it. He says he works with a coach for each song — a French one for “La Vie on Rose,” a Spanish one for “Si Te Contara” and a German one for Braham's “Nicht Wandle, Mein Licht (Liebeslieder Walzer Op. 52, No. 17).”

“I'm going to be singing this stuff around the world, so I don't want to look” — or sound — “like an idiot,” he quipped. “But my job on 'Passion World' was to choose things that I felt I could get behind emotionally and that I could offer with some kind of valid interpretive stance.”

Supremely fluent in scatting, Elling has also been a champion of “vocalese,” the art of penning and singing lyrics to an instrumental solo or composition.

“It's still such a young area of writing,” he said. “It couldn't have happened before the advent of recorded sound, and even then it didn't happen for quite a few years. There's a whole lot of areas of content, of language exploration and whole decades of music that haven't been explored yet or haven't been tapped.”

From The Zombies' “Time of the Season” on his sophomore album, “The Messenger” (Blue Note 1997) to U2's “Where the Streets Have No Name” on “Passion World”, Elling has also included his takes on contemporary repertoire. “That's stuff from the memory banks,” he explained.

When he's doing research for a new themed album or songs on which to collaborate with others, Elling said “maybe you'll stumble across something that you remembered from being a kid. Or else something will just jump into your mind.

“You just never know where inspiration will come from.”