DownBeat Readers Poll Male Vocalist of the Year

In the midst of what was a nonstop weekend for him at the Monterey Jazz Festival, Kurt Elling only had a few spare minutes. But this was long enough for him to talk about his current musical life while he dove into a huge plate of greasy BBQ, which he was being careful not to slop onto his white T-shirt. With a pile of napkins beside him, he thoroughly enjoyed what he called his “dinosaur-sized” ribs and joked, “I wish I had a dog I could give this to. He’d have a ball.”
The vocalist, winner of this year’s DownBeat Readers and Critics polls, sat in his trailer parked backstage, a stone’s throw from the Jimmy Lyons State at the fest’s main outdoors arena, where at the moment Chris Botti and his band were wooing, then firing up the crowd. Elling would be on the Lyons State for the fourth time during the fest later in the evening, playing the role of the character Doc from John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row in Dave Brubeck’s commissioned piece, “Cannery Row Suite.”

Earlier in the day Elling, this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival Artist in Residence, commanded the state with the all-start student band Next Generation Jazz Orchestra. The night before he played the Dizzy’s Den venue on the fairgrounds with his quartet: on opening night at the arena he scatted up a storm as a guest with the Yellowjackets, then swung with glee in tandem with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra through the premiere of John Clayton’s work-in-progress, “Red Man-Black Man.” Elling, who developed lyrics for the big band project, praised Clayton’s inspiration of exploring the early connections between African-American and Native-American music. “This piece takes you on a journey,” he said, “from total innocence and freedom to remembrance of that time with the demand to b freed again.”

As for his spotlight moment with the Yellowjackets, Elling called it “a dream come true.” Played with them humbled him because of their musicianship. “They’re all so accomplished, and they take on the most complex pieces of musical machinery with a deftness and subtlety that’s as strong as any band that’s ever played. They do complicated stuff; they play puzzles. It’s all so heavy.”

Elling’s not only busy as Monterey, but he’s also poised to take his career to the next level. “It’s all new,” he said. “A new daughter, new label, new management, new producer, new apartment, new car.”

He beamed. His daughter, Luiza, was given the nickname of Nichou by fellow vocalist Mark Murphy . Elling explained that the name means “beautiful evening” in Hindi, which he learned not from Murphy but courtesy of the owner of an Indian restaurant in his Chicago neighborhood.

“The baby has made quite a difference,” Elling said. “She’s chilled me out, made me happier, more relaxed, quieter. I don’t have to drive that hard. I can do my job of playing well and write some beautiful things.”

He’s already in the process of doing so, singling out a new lyric he’s written for a Von Freeman solo on a lesser-known Duke Ellington tune, “I Like the Sunrise.” He’s also got a new vocal version of “Body and Soul” up his sleeve….

In October he recorded his new album, loosely based on the storyline of a single jazz guy who hooks up then breaks up with a girl — “a nice sunset to sunrise experience,” he said — that’s tentatively scheduled for a February 2007 release. It’ll be helmed by pop producer Joe Chiccarelli, known for his work with Frank Zappa, Beck and Elton John.

“Joe’s smart and has good respect for what I’ve already done,” Elling said. “I can learn a lot from him, just like I’ve been learning a lot from [The Jazz Tree’s] Mary Ann Topper, who I’ve been working with over the last year-and-a-half. She’s got a good track record for making things roll.”

Elling hastens to note that all this is no knock on his tenure with Blue Note — “there’s such a great team, and I’d be happy to have them over to my house anything” — but that it’s time for him to see what else is out there. In a clipping beat, he said, “Change the coast, change it up, take a chance, role the dice, see where it goes.”

The label change has brought Elling a fresh enthusiasm for the next chapter in his career. “I’m at a transitional time, moving away from the guy who’s trying to make it,” he said. “Now people say, ‘OK he’s for real: let’s see what else he’s got.’ That’s different from trying to slog through gig after gig uphill. I’ve come a long way from ‘Who’s Kurt Elling?’ Now, it’s a new team, new ideas, new recording.”