Down Beat 48th Annual Critics PollKurt Elling – Male Vocalist of the Year

The critics pick the best in jazz, blues & beyond . . .Down Beat 48th Annual Critics Poll

To the casual observer, any young singer who has notched four Blue Note albums and three Grammy nominations ought to feel as if he’s on top of the world. Throw in a double triumph in this year’s Down Beat Critics Poll as the top and TDWR Male Vocalist, and 32-year-old singer-songwriter Kurt Elling looks practically unstoppable.

But to Elling – a gifted and driven artist who has been touring and recording incessantly for the past six year-real life is more sobering than appearances might suggest. The music industry accolades are great, Elling says, but trying to woo the wider listening public with an innovative, often challenging music is not for the faint of heart.

“Like the saying goes, It’s uphill both ways,” he jokes from the Chicago apartment he shares with his wife, dancer Jennifer Carney Elling. “It’s uphill going up, and it’s uphill going down. The Grammy nominations are beautiful, exciting, a thrill and an honor, and this (Down Beat poll) certainly falls into the same category. But there are just so many challenges from so many different angels that attack your ability to focus on playing music.”

Indeed, since Elling released his first Blue Note CD, Close Your Eyes (1995), he has learned that there’s considerably more to a jazz artist’s life than standing in front of a microphone and swinging (as if that weren’t hard enough). Along the way, a once wide-eyed young singer has absorbed critical lessons about life on the road, the rigors of staying solvent and the often marginal role that jazz is accorded in American life.

Call it the education of Kurt Elling, a Chicagoan who burst onto the national scene with a stunning debut CD and has been working ferociously to build a public ever since. “There’s just any number of things that make life difficult, but mostly it’s about time, and not having enough of it,” Elling says. “Mostly it’s about spending less than 18 hours in any one location (on tour). We try to strike a balance between not losing money – or not losing to much money – and my not getting sick on the road or getting completely burned out on performing too many nights in a row.”

The larger issue is persuading average listeners to sit still for the kind of musical experimentation that early on made Elling a favorite among critics. To varying degrees, each of Elling’s subsequent CDs – but most notably The Messenger (1997) and Live in Chicago (2000) – have been vital to the evolving art of male jazz singing. The strange and sometimes hilarious sound effects, audaciously fast scat work and consistently ingenious vocales passages that are Elling’s stock in trade have done more than announce the arrival of a major jazz singer. They have shown the directions that male vocalists can pursue to push beyond the innovations of Mel Torme, Joe Williams, Cab Calloway, Frank Sinatra and other fallen icons. Yet Elling still awaits the kind of breakthrough moment that,. Say, Blue Note colleague Cassandra Wilson achieved with her extraordinary Blue Light ‘Til Dawn album (1993), which transformed Wilson into a major artistic and commercial force. With Blue Light Til Dawn, Wilson crossed over into broad popularity, yet without compromising the intellectual depth or experimental nature of her work a whit; Elling has strived for the same kind of success.

“I know that everybody, especially the record company, was sort of expecting the things to take off faster and bigger than it did, says Laurence Hobgood, Elling’s pianist and artistic alter ego on all the singer’s recordings and major performances. “But I’m kind of glad that it didn’t, because now that more things seem to be happening, we’re really ready. Kurt has learned to think very musically, and he has specific compositional ideas and sounds he wants. He’s getting to the point where he reminds me of stories I’ve heard about Torme being really picky and saying, “No, you’re playing a sharp 11th in that chord, and I don’t want that.”

It’s not just Elling’s musical abilities that have blossomed. During the past few years, he has staged in Chicago and across the country full-blown performance pieces encompassing poetry, spoken word, dance and theater. In 1998, for instance, his “Encounter Without Prejudice: An Open Tribute to Allen Ginsberg” (premiered at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre) dared to criticize the excesses of the Beat generation even while celebrating the achievements of Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso and others.

Granted, there have been bumps along the way. The multimedia New Year’s Eve concert over which Elling presided in Chicago’s McCormick Place last December was a dud, despite the singer’s exceptional singing. Nevertheless, Elling has been fearless in staging these spectacles, which point to an artist much larger than just a set of nimble vocal cords.

“It’s just a huge challenge to my creativity and to my mind to make an evening that’s not just another set. I do have these other interests, and I do want to have the opportunity to speak in different settings about different issues.”

Yet the fact remains that Elling is one of the few young, major male jazz singers in a culture that doesn’t seem to nuture them. On the plus side, Elling’s rarefied status as an under-40 male vocalist signed to an important label has afforded him quicker visibility than he might have had as, say, on of scores of saxophonists or trumpeters. On the other hand, the scarcity of top-flight, young male jazz singers has made Elling something of an oddity.

“Yeah, there aren’t a whole lot of cats out there,” Elling says. “Some of it has to do with the general lack of arts consideration in American culture. And it has to do with not enough parents being hip to higher sounds and definitely not playing it around the house for the kids. It has to do with the lack of arts funding for schools. No kids are going to fall in love with jazz if they don’t fall in love with music in the first place and have an instrument to play and have somebody to show them how to play it and to take it someplace.”

“If you want to meet girls and you’re in high school, and you want to play in a band, you pick the guitar.”

But Elling realizes that for better or worse, a jazz singer is what he is and always will be. “I was never really interested in being a rock & roll guy,” he says. “This music is really beautiful and challenging and exciting to me. And I’ve learned a lots since I started out. I’ve learned what age can do to a voice, and what fatigue does, and how much focus and effort it takes to sound good night after night.”

“It’s a fulfilling act in and of itself just to be able to wake up int eh morning and not sound like you’ve blown your chops the night before. It’s fulfilling just to know that you’re going to sound good the next night, and the night after that.”