Elling a relentless innovator

In an era where the landscape of what passes for jazz singers is often very predictable, it’s tempting to say “thanks God, for sending us Kurt Elling.”
OK, before you drop this page in disbelief, consider a few facts.

Singing standards from the great American songbook does not automatically make someone a jazz singer (sorry, Rod Stewart fans). Look back in music history and you’ll find that even when jazz music coincided with popular tastes, certain individuals have been there to continually pull the tradition forward, to prove that great art and jazz entertainment are not mutually exclusive.

Elling continues to set the standard for this era, and he has a knack for channelling his love of jazz into musical innovation, for instance, by writing his own lyrics to fit great jazz instrumentals. Those gifts have brought him Grammy nominations for each of his seven albums and the past philosophy graduate has continued to top the jazz polls from audiences and critics alike for most of the past decade.

“One of the ways you distinguish yourself as an artist is to sing material that nobody else can copy without naming you,” Elling explains. “It’s important to deal with the standards’ repertoire so people can hear exactly how far you are taking it and tailoring it to your musical vision. But nothing succeeds like original material.”

This interview found the singer dealing with the sweltering heat in New York, where he and his wife and child are spending “an extended creative dislocation” of a year or two from their Chicago home. Elling is searching out new collaborations and fresh opportunities that might involve the dramatic arts. He’s had collaborations with Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago and hints that Broadway is beckoning.

This happens as his latest CD is about to be released. It’s a special concert recording of a commissioned project that started in Chicago. The singer’s regular pianist-arranger for 16 years, Laurence Hobgood, and a string quartet called Ethel accompanied Elling at New York’s Lincoln Center in January in an attempt to remake the decades-old meeting of two late jazz greats, singer Johnny Hartman and saxophonist John Coltrane. Dedicated to You is Elling’s second release for Concord Jazz.

The vocalist explains he initially had mixed feelings about paying tribute to the Coltrane-Hartman collaboration he had heard years ago.

“From the beginning I was looking for a way to make it a more signature project, so I brought in my arranging partners and the strings. After the first one-off in Chicago, other promoters kept approaching us to do it elsewhere and over a couple of years we refined the idea and expanded it and changed arrangements and people. The record label suggested recording it at Lincoln Center. The material is beautiful and the charts tailor-made.”

His return visit to Edmonton will include a few numbers from Dedicated to You, but Elling always seems to be cooking up new material. “We’re quite restless. I’ve got stuff from Keith Jarrett that I’m looking forward to recording, with my lyrics, more stuff by Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, some Scofield. It’s only as limited as my imagination and licensing lawyers will limit me.”

As he enjoys the prime of his career, Elling is not as well known to the world at large as pop-jazz singers like Diana Krall, but you get the sense he doesn’t care. He notes that most jazz musicians never expect to be wealthy. “Jazz musicians are explorers, improvisers, writers, we’re trying to play something we’ve never played before and potentially, that no one has ever played before.”