Elling’s jazz breaks new ground

Kurt Elling is on top of the jazz world now and probably the music’s most popular and acclaimed male singer, though at 39 he is still a young buck by jazz standards.
Let’s count the ways people love him.

In 2006, the baritone won Down Beat magazine’s critics poll and its readers’ poll — for the third time. His albums have racked up seven Grammy nominations. And he’s won the Prix Billie Holiday from the Acadamie du Jazz in Paris.

He’s toured internationally and worked with many jazz greats and was commissioned by Chicago to write and perform a major concert for the city’s millennial celebration with the city’s leading jazz and literary stars.

He’s done it all with a swinging, vibrant style and improvisational singing feats that few other singers would risk. And he woos fans of both genders with his romantic assurance on both classic ballads and his own songs.

That includes Madison.

Elling will perform at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater, part of a new tour to promote his new album “Night Moves.” Tickets are $25 and $29 at the Overture box office or online at www.overturecenter.com.

It may be his most personal and ambitious project yet. His originals often use texts from outstanding poets, including Pablo Neruda, Rainer Maria Rilke, the Persian poet Rumi and, as you’d expect of a hipster, the Beat poets.

Following the brilliantly diverse passion and style of his CD “Man in the Air” in 2004, Elling did an ambitious 2005 CD project, “Leaves of Grass.” Led by pianist Fred Hersch, Elling sang poems by the immortal Walt Whitman. Hersch had set the verse to original music.

Elling also does daring scat singing with a highly expressive voice that ranges four octaves. Then there’s his stunning skill with vocalese. That mode of singing involves setting his own lyrics to the recorded improvised solos of great jazz musicians. Only a select group of gifted singers have done that before him.

It all adds up to a singer “for a new generation,” as one publication said, and one who may have raised the bar to new heights for male jazz singers.

Elling talked about his current goals, values and the new project in a recent phone interview from his home in Chicago.

In troubled times, aren’t you trying to make people feel good about everything Americans have to bring to the world?

I certainly want to give people the best things that I can give them and to orient them to the most beautiful possibilities.

I’m very mindful of what’s happening in the world. As an artist and somebody who’s in front of people, I know people can walk out of my concert feeling any number of ways. I do want them feeling better.

You’re taking some daring leaps with the jazz singing tradition that extends from Eddie Jefferson, Jon Hendricks, Joe Williams and Mark Murphy. What do you value most in that vocal tradition?

It’s tough to single out a thing. The sound of it. The intelligence of it. The hip factor. The spirit of it. And also the camaraderie of it. I feel like those are my guys. I never met Joe, but I would hope that when we meet in heaven or something, they’ll say, “Right on, kid.” I do get that from Mark and Jon Hendricks. It makes me feel I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.

All jazz people take their music very personally. We’re protective of the music because the world continues to not pay much attention to it. It’s something really profound and has so much to give, so I’m more hopeful than anything else.

People say jazz radio isn’t makin’ it, or whatever. Well, we’ll figure it out. The changes just get more difficult, but if you just slow down and work on it, we’ll it figure out.

You mean, if you give the music a chance, it might help you through the tough life we’re all dealing with? That’s a lot of what the jazz and the blues spirits are about.


Hip-hop singers have often used jazz instrumental samples, and their style extends from word-jazz poets and ’70s funk music. What role is hip-hop playing historically and in terms of speaking to people today?

All music has underground connectivity. I’m of the opinion that rap wouldn’t have happened without vocalese, without Eddie Jefferson. It wouldn’t have happened without the hipsters and the Beat thing. But all that stuff swirls around. It’s the same message to everybody.

You know, value the time you have, do the best you can to try to figure out what it’s gonna take to create more beauty and more mystery and more value in life. Don’t waste it. We only have it for a little while anyway. Go all the way for it. And be hopeful because there is an answer.

It’s just a question of whether individually and collectively you feel like figuring it out. You may be on the road, but you gotta get out and get started.

You draw significantly from poets and writers as well as musicians. Why is it important to make the connection between writers and musicians?

It gives the listener something to think about. But it seems more natural to me than important. It’s an organic exchange because I’m a singer, and we all express ourselves with words.

It’s a strain that flows through people like Mark Murphy, Jon Hendricks and the poet Kenneth Rexroth and the Beats. And there’s other people, like (actor and jazz poet) Kamau Daood in Los Angeles, who do music and poetry because it’s there. The history exists. What are you gonna do about it?

On the new album you put words to recorded solos by Wayne Shorter, Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny and Dexter Gordon. What does this accomplish?

Jazz musicians tell stories in a well-made solo. This is another way to amplify the storytelling of a soloist. It’s a way to help to give the story more meaning.

“Night Moves” is moody and introspective. What is the value of such introspection right now?

You want to go to the bull’s-eye of your heart, and it’s only when you go as deep as you can go that you can communicate to many people. The deeper you go, the more common the experience. It’s a bit of a paradox. If you just do what everybody’s doing these days, you may have a big hit but it doesn’t mean anything.

When you go deeper, you find experiences that are common to all people. It might mean a sort of dark night of the soul. But you wake up on the other side, the light comes, and you feel better.

I’m still upset at the failures of the people in charge, and I’m still ready to take up the fight. But I feel different because I’ve been healed a little bit.