America’s new Sinatra blows in from windy city
Kurt Elling is, at one and the same time, a throwback to a classic age and a glimpse into the future. His rich vocal tone embodies every great jazz singer. There’s a hint of Sinatra, a touch of Mark Murphy’s insouciance, Sheila Jordan’s mischief and some of Al Jarreau’s honeyed roundedness. But it’s where he takes that sound that makes Elling such a thrilling singer.
Down Beat magazine – the American jazz bible and notoriously hard to please – has called the Chicagoan “the best jazz singer ever”. And listening to Elling as he completely reinvents a well-worn standard such as You Don’t Know What Love Is or applies his own lyrics to a Pat Metheny tune or a Charlie Haden bass solo, it’s easy to share this enthusiasm.
Jazz was only on the periphery of Elling’s musical awareness as he grew up in Chicago. He sang in church from an early age – his father was a church musician who gave all his children instruments to play. Kurt studied classical violin and French horn, although it was choral music that really interested him. Through school and into college in Minnesota, he sang the choral repertoire, from twelfth-century plainchant to Philip Glass.
Lurking down the hall in his dorm, however, was the music that was about to hijack him. Fellow students played him Dexter Gordon and Herbie Hancock records and Elling was captivated, particularly by Gordon’s languid improvising style on tenor saxophone. Just as many saxophonists cite singers as influences, there’s a lot of saxophone in Elling’s singing. Gordon’s obviously in there, but so, too, is John Coltrane, whose Resolution has received the Elling treatment.
Moving from Minnesota back to the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, where his intentions were academic rather than priestly, Elling became sidetracked by singing. He sat in on every possible club session, sang for the door takings and took a job with a removal company to keep body and soul together while pounding the pavement looking for gigs. At one club where he blagged his way onstage he met Laurence Hobgood, who remains his pianist, arranger and co-composer. They formed an inspired and dedicated partnership, working tirelessly on a shared vision. Their gigs locally, especially at the Green Mill, became must-sees. Then came the moment that will be a gift to any future Elling biopic producer.
Despite watching demo after demo being tossed away by unsympathetic bookers, they persevered. One of their tapes found its way to Bruce Lundvall, head of legendary jazz label Blue Note. Lundvall was reportedly driving out of New York when he slipped Elling’s tape into the player and had to pull over to the side of the road to listen properly. Fearful that another company might beat him to it, he called Elling immediately and suggested that the demo was ready to release as Elling’s first album.
Elling and Hobgood felt the tape needed more work and went into the studio to add four songs. The result, Close Your Eyes, set the ball rolling for serial Grammy nominations, rave reviews internationally and more striving for perfection for Elling and Hobgood, who joins the singer on his Scottish debut next week with the Norrbotten Big Band.
How much of an event is their concert at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh? Up there with Sonny Rollins at the same venue? Possibly. Put it this way: anyone who felt the slightest disappointment at having missed out when the Esbjorn Svensson Trio played their first Scottish date at Henry’s Cellar Bar should be booking tickets. The music and locations are different, but the thrill of being there and being able to look back on the experience is likely to be similar.