Expanding the Jazz Experience: An Interview with Kurt Elling
Kurt Elling grew up the son of a Lutheran church Kapellmeister and learned early on that music is transporting. “It can move people's imaginations,” says the Chicago-born jazz vocalist and composer in advance of his appearance at the TD Toronto Jazz Festival on June 23. Elling's own imagination is moved in a variety of different ways. Considered the most influential jazz singer at work in the world today, Elling, 47, constantly gathers material for his expanding repertoire from a variety of sources: pop music and the American song book in addition to ballads in foreign languages discovered while on one of his many global tours. These disparate musical influences become one in the skilled hands of Elling. Passion World, which he released on June 9 on the Concord Jazz label, is a pastiche of European songs and musical styles rendered into jazz, and with Elling's own distinctive stamp on the final product.
Elling, who today resides in New York, will perform selections from the new album at his upcoming Toronto concert along with highlights from his other albums which have paid tribute to Frank Sinatra and also John Coltrane by reinterpreting them using vocalese. With his rich baritone and four octave range, Elling is a master of the genre of jazz that uses the voice as a kind of musical instrument. Words become melodies as they are improvised with a tune. When Elling does vocalese, it's a tour de force performance, and one of the reasons he's an in-demand performer. There are other reasons besides, not the least of which is the inquiring mind which Elling uses to enliven and elucidate the songs he sings, breathing into them new life. He explains some of that process with me here in advance of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival.
dk: Tell us first about your new record.
ke: Passion World is a collection of compositions that have developed over many years really, since the start of my touring career about 20 years ago. Whenever I come to a different location, when I can and when I have the opportunity and can pull it together, I like to try if not speak in the language of wherever it is I am visiting and then to sing in it. I have since sung in French, German, Portuguese, Polish, and Spanish and so some of these songs on the album were developed over the years just as a result of me wanting to be friendly with people. Jazz can be a challenging music and I wanted, as I have always done to connect solidly with audiences whenever I go and give people something meaningful to them, and memorable.
dk: Who's on the new release besides yourself?
ke: I have live tape from Cologne, Germany, featuring the WDR Orchestra and Big Band and from up in Scotland with Tommy Smith and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra. There are also recordings I did in Los Angeles with Arturo Sandoval and his great rhythm section.
dk: So it's pretty varied?
ke: Yes, but I hope that it is a cogent project pulling upon the strands of my experiences of more than 20 years of touring across the world.
dk: You always seem to be on an adventure when it's time to record, why is that?
ke: Huh! Well I've done some bonus tracks in different languages in the past so this is a natural growth of that curiosity and of the kinds of arrangements that we had. I think that it is of a piece with the other records but it stands alone in terms of its more internationalist trajectory.
dk: Will we be hearing excerpts from this new release next week in Toronto?
ke: You'll be hearing many selections from Passion World but I hesitate to say that's what we will be doing, exclusively. I think fans come out to hear what they want to hear and I am happy to lay those things out. But there will be some surprises, things we haven't recorded yet.
dk: What do your fans wants to hear when you sing?
ke: Well, they want to hear me scat a little bit and they want to hear me swing. There's also demand for some duets I do on occasion with my bassist which are pretty popular. But I kind of hesitate to promise because sometimes on a given night I have a better idea than the night before.
dk: You have been quoted saying that jazz is being able to make new ideas happen; is that why you like to keeps things loose?
ke: Well, jazz music is the music of improvisation. It's the music of people who have dedicated themselves and their study to a specific history of swinging, mostly American, music. Once you've done that homework and you've learned that history then you want to play to the present moment, and in order to play to the present moment you need to be here now, and direct your energies to that which neither you or anyone else has ever played on a given night.
dk: You've gone outside that American tradition. In Canada, your cover version of the Guess Who's “Undun” strikes a chord. As well, your version of The Beatles' “Norwegian Wood” is a revelation. What guides your artistic choices?
ke: I'm just open to good musical ideas. I mean, “Undun” is a great composition. It's great in its original form as a rock and roll thing and I hope I did some interesting justice to it as a piece of jazz music. And I dare say that's not the closing moment. I can certainly see a Volume 2 for Passion World that would include a couple of Joni Mitchell things covered very prominently and featured very prominently. She is such a great writer.
dk: When you take the songs of other writers, and other singers, how do you make them your own?
ke: There are several approaches. I think it helps that I am attempting also to be a lyricist and on occasion a composer. I am a story teller who is not just reiterating new musical arrangements that have come before. That seems to be a good share of my ability to make what I do more of a signature event.
dk: I wanted to ask about your literary influences, your obvious love of words. When you sing you seem to be dissecting the meaning behind the lyric, drawing out the emotions as well as the intelligence behind the writing. Is that a conscious decision?
ke: Well, you know, I am trying to be smart in this life; I am trying to learn things. I guess that's the way I can put it. And it does help to have interesting and sometimes more obscure passages and ideas and themes that I can juxtapose with the jazz idiom. Creative juxtaposition, I think, is one of the more interesting habits of the creative life. It certainly has served me well. I hope it has. I believe it has.
dk: How did growing up in the Lutheran church shape you?
ke: Well, my father was a church musician and he played the pipe organ and he led all the important choirs, and he led the church in the musical segment of its worship on a given Sunday, or on a Thursday, depending on the occasion. I was involved from the time that I can remember and I'd say that gave me two important things: It gave me the physical and physiological and structural tools to sing well, and it gave me a sense of the spirit of what music can do.
dk: Was there, dare I say?, a moment of epiphany when you decided to devote yourself to this thing called music?
ke: I didn't actually decide I was going to be a musician until I was already out of graduate school and well into my 20s. I had been reading the philosophy of religions at the University of Chicago for several years, and then I discovered that it wasn't really my vocation to explore that way of writing: papers, articles and books. That wasn't the gift that was given to me. But some sense of the spirit of things was given to me through music and it was the jazz musicians on the Chicago scene who pulled me in and gave me my vocation. They invited me back, over and over again, and told me that what I was offering was something that they wanted to hear more of.
dk: But you have gone back to school in a way. You give master classes, which is part of the reason you are such an influential vocalist. How do you encourage others to discover what you have found in music?
ke: It is tough because I am on the road so much, but I do try to make myself available when I am back in New York, and occasionally when I am on the road. When there is a university that has sponsored a concert I connect with students to find out what's on their minds, and get some information. What I tell them is whether they end up being a jazz singer or not, working toward the mastering of music will teach them about themselves; it will teach them about whether they are actually as dedicated as they think they are, whether they are as smart as they think they are, whether they are as gifted as they are told they are, and whether they have the stamina for it. And if they do have all those aspects together then I tell them that they need to be smarter than basically anyone else in the room. They need to be stronger, and they need also to be more patient, and more courageous than anyone else in the room, because it's going to take all of that to grow into the dream.
dk: What have you sacrificed?
ke: Well time, and energy. And beautiful days outdoors when I have to practice music. I regularly sacrifice time away from my family here in New York so I can be on the road and perform for people and fulfill my role as a musician. I travel a lot. I am exhausted a lot.
dk: Tell me about your family, the ones you leave behind when you go on the road.
ke: I have a beautiful and wonderful wife and a fantastic, magnificent nine year old daughter, and they're very patient and supportive of me.
dk: What's next for you?
ke: Now that this album is I have a whole lot of touring to do for it. Besides that, there's another studio project in in the works that looks like I will be recording in December. I am also co-writing a play for radio that will be produced by the BBC in April or May of 2016 and that will include music. It will be orchestrated by my friend, Guy Barker, who's a beat composer and trumpet player from London.
dk: What's the subject?
ke: It's an update of the Joe E. Lewis story [the Chicago night-club entertainer who worked for the mob during Prohibition] which is easy enough to find by Googling, “The Joker is Wild.”
dk: You are always pushing yourself, aren't you?
ke: Man, I wish I could find an easy road. But that would too easy, I guess. The music deserves my highest intention. I just don't want to bail on the people who have come before me. I don't want to bail on Jon Hendricks and Mark Murphy and Joe Williams; I don't want to bail on Pops; I don't want to bail on Dexter Gordon. I don't want to bail on these guys because they sacrificed their lives for this music. And at the same time I feel I owe it to my audience to continue to try, to expand the experience, when they come out to hear me and my great and excellent band mates. I also feel I owe it to myself to be challenged. The voice that I have is so flexible and so powerful it seems kind of a shame not to put it to work.