Act 3: Kurt Elling Works to Balance His Drive for Artistic Innovation with His New Family Life

Kurt Elling had a right to enjoy a moment of satisfaction. As he introduced his band to a packed house at Chicago's Park West, he got to the Hawk String Quartet, which was positioned over his left shoulder toward the back of the stage.

“It looks like I've given myself a promotion,” he remarked, with a laugh, to his devoted hometown fans at the release party for his new album, Nightmoves (Concord). Sure, Elling has often led large-scale, ambitious projects over the course of his career. But the vocalist usually finds himself fronting his quartet. So to make this Sunday-night gig in March special, Elling augmented his group with saxophonist Jim Gailloreto, harmonica player Howard Levy and the strings, which helped to re-create the gorgeous arrangements by Elling's pianist and musical director, Laurence Hobgood, on such Nightmoves tracks as “The Sleepers” and “Where Are You, My Love.”

However, a month after the show, when reminded of the comment, Elling discounted it. “I really don't feel that way,” he said, sitting in the living room of his Hyde Park home. “It was a joke. But I do feel more confident, more sure of myself, more relaxed.”

Elling may have intended the line as a joke. After all, he had used strings before — including his stellar interpretation of the classic John Coltrane-Johnny Hartman album as part of the 2006 Chicago Jazz Festival. And he does not hesitate to push the artistic envelope, such as when he shared the stage with the likes of Jon Hendricks, Mark Murphy and Kevin Mahogany in his Four Brothers project. But the remark did peel back the skin a bit to help reveal where Elling sees himself today. He's 39 years old. For the past 12 years, since he signed to Blue Note in 1995, he has seen his star rise on the international jazz scene. He recorded six albums for Blue Note and played the world's top clubs, concert halls and festivals. He built a large and devoted fan base in Chicago through his weekly (when he's in town) Wednesday-night gig at the Green Mill and special projects, such as the five shows he wrote for the Steppenwolf Theater's “Traffic” series and a millennium musical salute to the city. He also perennially wins the DownBeat Readers and Critics polls as the top male vocalist. He has, as referred to in the May 4-and-a-half-star DownBeat review of Nightmoves, become “one of the few post-Baby Boom hardcore jazz artists who can live up to the term 'original.'”

But recent events in Elling's life have given him a new outlook on his music. In 2005 he and his wife, Jennifer, became parents to a daughter, Luiza. He hired a new manager, Mary Ann Topper, moved to a new home (a condo formerly owned by Sen. Barack Obama), found a new drummer for his quartet (Willie Jones III) and switched record labels, from Blue Note to Concord.

The changes have not brought complacency. Elling still has plenty to prove. He has a rabid hunger to explore his craft, to learn about new directions in which he can take his music. He wants to discover the next level of artistic challenges — from vocalese to ballads, swinging standards to original poetry. But rather than pushing so hard to “make it” as he did earlier in his career, he has realized that he has, in a sense, “made it,” and with that he has found a new enjoyment and appreciation for his work.

“It just doesn't hurt like it did before,” he said. “I used to be revved up, having something to prove. Now, it's more like I believe in what I do. I believe in the people around me, I am self-sustaining, have plenty of challenges ahead and see how great life is.

“I feel like I'm in act three,” he continued. “I did act one: childhood, college, whatever. Act two: anything that comes before you're a father. Now it's act three: a new release, new label, new management, having Willie in the band. There's the new home. But the baby is the big thing. It's a new outlook, and I'm a lot more satisfied. I'm at a pivotal time, where everything that came before was valuable training for what will come next.”

Elling offers a quick synopsis of Nightmoves' narrative arc: “Late night. Dark night of the soul. Only questions at the top of the form, and only beautiful answers at the end.”

The vocalist excels at painting narrative portraits with his versatile baritone. On Nightmoves, he unveiled a story that at face value appears to tell a tale of love lost and regained. But digging deeper into the songs, especially his lyric to “A New Body And Soul” (based upon the melody of a Dexter Gordon solo from 1976, and printed in a new book of Elling's lyrics by Circumstantial Productions), a different picture emerges. It's every bit as personal as it is a fictional plot. “That last section is really autobiographical,” he said. “This is my life I'm showing you here.”

Still, Elling allows each listener to develop his or her own interpretation of the album's story. “It's a little of a cliche skeleton, but it's certainly a true story,” he said. “Cliches tend to be true in one way or another. In this case there is a lot of shading. The skeleton is a throughway, so there's a reason why these things hang together. There's a reason why the record is louder at the top than it is at the end. There's a reason why there are these eddies, and why the philosophical, poetic aspect is in the middle.

“A man and woman are having trouble,” he continued, discussing the Michael Franks-penned opening title track and Betty Carter's “Tight,” the album's premier swinger, courtesy of an arrangement from bassist Christian McBride. “She splits, he goes looking for her, catches up with her, she's dancing with someone else. He's like, 'Come on, remember how it was.' She splits with this other guy. I've had people say, 'When you get to 'In The Wee Small Hours,' why did he get up and leave her?' I didn't see it that way. The impetus for me to write that lyric was trying to get home, missing my girls. That's the reality of the road. You wake up in Anonymousville, in some Comfort Inn. Everyone has to wake up that next day. You can't stay in that magic time, where you can reveal all, and everything is poetry, everything is music. You don't get to live like that on a day-to-day basis. You get these epiphanies, and then you can see the daylight coming, you know you have to go to work, make the airport. All the mistakes, triumphs, love, heartbreak, experiments — failed or otherwise — all the friendships, connections, missed connections, were in this incredibly beautiful, swirling experience.”

Thus, a cleansing version of Duke Ellington's “I Like The Sunrise” serves as the album's coda. A medley of “Change Partners/If You Never Come To Me” serves as one of the album's highlights. Both tunes appeared, albeit not in sequence, on the Frank Sinatra-Antonio Carlos Jobim collaboration Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim. With the help of Levy's harmonica and Guilherme Monteiro's guitar, the two tunes weave seamlessly into each other. Did Elling discover a Sinatra mistake?

“You can't really say that Frank did something wrong: Frank and Tom Jobim, what a missed opportunity they had!” he laughed.

To turn this medley into reality, Elling turned to Hobgood for the arrangement. “I said, 'These go together. Let's figure it out,''' Elling said. “Laurence got his genius chops out and made it sound like that.”

The relationship between Elling and Hobgood stands as one of the great jazz partnerships from the past decade. Since they first played together at the Green Mill, when a raw but clearly talented Elling sat in with saxophonist Ed Petersen on a Monday night in 1993, they have developed a special rapport.

“I've needed someone like him in my corner to whom I could say: 'Here are my ideas, let's refine these, bounce them off of each other, so when they come out at the other end, they're at the highest level they can be,'” Elling said. “We've had some stressful times, but neither of us has ever wavered in our mutual perception of how special our musical gifts to one another were, how much it has meant to have a writing partner whose natural inclinations complemented each other.”

Besides supporting Elling as a world-class pianist, Hobgood has helped to guide the compositional palette of Elling's songbook.

“My favorite things that we have written, such as 'Man In The Air' and 'The Beauty Of All Things,' I wrote almost the complete musical part before showing it to him, but the whole time I wrote it for him,” Hobgood said. “I knew it was right. We both have a credo about what's important about the music. It's beyond earning a living and playing really well. At a deeper level there's something that's a gift to the makers and the audience. Kurt is comfortable retaining his own identity even as he is a vessel for something.

“We've managed to stay together, tour together, and it's a uniquely Chicago story,” continued Hobgood, who actually moved to New York in 2006. “As unlikely as our story may be in general, it would almost never happen here in New York. This scene is all interchangeable parts. The better the player you are, the more likely you are touring with different people. We've managed to stay together and tour together as a real band.”

Bassist Rob Amster has been a mainstay of the band since the beginning. He worked with Hobgood in Petersen's group, and played on the nine-track demo that became the foundation for Elling's Blue Note debut, Close Your Eyes. “If Laurence comes out of Herbie, Chick and Keith — that kind of complex sensibility — then Rob comes straight out of Ray Brown,” Elling said. “No matter where Laurence and I choose to go on a given gig, Rob keeps everything grounded — not just sonically but in terms of maintaining a swinging time feel and a sense of the need to be more straightforward with our solos and arrangements.”

“The Waking” offers the most vivid example of the chemistry between Amster and Elling on Nightmoves. “He had melodic fragments, and I started to hear some harmony to go along with the melody,” Amster said of the bass-vocal duet interpretation of the Theodore Roethke poem. “We experimented with different things. A lot of the duet stuff we do develops organically. When there are two voices, it takes a while to figure out what the optimal path is.”

“Daddy!” Luiza yelled from another room in the home during the interview. She then came to the living room with her mom, dressed to go outside and play.

“Have a good time,” Elling said as they walked out the front door. “Bye bye.”

“Real life this way is so much better than real life without it,” he said about fatherhood. “You see the world with new eyes. The attitude of it informs my music, whether you can detect it overtly or not. The temperature is different.”

The topic of conversation shifted to “Leaving Again” on Nightmoves, which features an original lyric that Elling based upon a 1994 Keith Jarrett improvisation. Tackling one of Jarrett's melodies did not intimidate Elling, but it did help him look at his work and strive toward upping his artistic ante. It's a subject to which Elling has devoted much thought.

“Listening to somebody like Keith Jarrett is humbling,” Elling said. “It isn't just his gift. It's the discipline and the artistry, craftsmanship and dedication that it's taken to master music in such a way that he can allow himself to make these [improvised concerts] happen. Because he can make that happen, and he's a human being, it makes one think: What could I do? Great artists, whether they're artists of physical dexterity, painting or music, have individual moments of human evolution that have the potential to pull the rest of us forward. Bird had this incredible forward thrust of human consciousness that played itself out through music. [John) Coltrane had that forward thrust of musical consciousness coupled with spiritual consciousness. It pulled us all forward into the future. Keith Jarrett has a gift that pulls us into the future, and it pulls him into the future.

“It's also the question: What are you going to do in response to this?” he continued. “What are you in the audience going to do? We naturally have a little bit of a struggle inside of ourselves toward greater creativity, and toward greater destructive activity. We have this yin and yang. The daily discipline that it takes to see the world with fresh eyes, and to try to apprehend everything that's coming to you as a potential gift, there's poetry in that. That's the reminder that Keith proclaims every time he steps to the piano, whether he's conscious of this proclamation or not. Anyone who masters their instrument to such a level — Lee Konitz, Jan Garbarek, Wynton Marsalis — is a rebuke to everybody who is a dilettante: 'I worked hard enough to do it. What's your excuse?'

“It's a reason why people are afraid of it and elements of the population want to destroy it, because it is a rebuke to everyone else who hasn't done anything that great. It makes you feel lazy. We don't pressure ourselves enough to realize the greatness within ourselves. The opportunities are not only on stage. They're everywhere. When you wake up, ask yourself: What am I going to do today to go through the day to spread grace and nobility, to be transparent and be more open?”

For Elling, this question serves as the impetus for his struggle to constantly seek new musical challenges, and to find new means to entertain and push his fans.

“I feel rebuked by Keith Jarrett, like I should work harder,” he said. “I feel like I have to work three, four or five hours a day to find the magic. But I'm tempted, lazy. I want to eat. I want to play with my daughter, give her a good life. But that's part of nobility. Being a good father is part of the challenge: How can I balance my life so that I make my art with as high a dedication level as I can, and also make sure that my daughter is without fear? The pattern grows more subtle and complex, but as Rilke says: 'Being swept along is not enough. Take your practice powers and stretch them out, until they span the chasm between two contradictions because the god wants to know himself.' Yeah, baby, that's what it's about.”

Suddenly, the front door opened. “Did you unlock the door? Did you bring me the mail? Excellent!” Elling enthused to his daughter as she came inside with Jennifer. It was father time again for Elling, the central role of act three.