Forceful vision: Kurt Elling joins Branford Marsalis at the State

Jazz moves to the form of the universe. Tingling and spiraling behind the clear and automatic, it's an expression conjoining the human to the infinite: a chance to dig deeper into a sort of refined communication, an arena where the invisible serves as the visual: a fluxing declaration.
In no other musical configuration does instrumentation figure so deeply into story telling, as jazz. Moods, textures, and hues, symbolize words, poetry and action, where each song is a tale, unique and moving. The inclusion of a vocalist into this deepening form can add an immense new dimension. Kurt Elling, the Grammy award winning jazz vocalist, composer, and lyricist from Chicago, opens a particular dimensional portal infinitely wide, with a style and touch unlike any other: worldly and beyond. A force.

“I'm never able to keep up with all the music that's going on, you know,” Elling explained recently. “What I do is listen to a website online that collects radio stations from all over the world. I like to find out what the world is listening to. There's some really disparate and obscure locations on the site, and it's beautiful stuff man.”

Elling is coming to Ithaca with jazz titans the Branford Marsalis Quartet next Thursday, in what's sure to be an exploration in density and ascension. The unlikely pairing has proved dynamic, with the group recording the forceful and intricate record Upward Spiral last June. A powerhouse like the Branford Marsalis Quartet, a group that swings and torches in a physical and immediate way, is a difficult fit for a vocalist, but Elling is the right man for the job: a singer with an inner spirit and corporeal drive that is commanding and omnipresent.

“Playing with Branford's quartet has been nothing but good times,” Elling said. “It's been a thrill and a joy, and also a very real challenge. They have a remarkable intensity and strength in their music. They play straight up, hard hitting jazz, I mean compared to whatever I've been doing all these years [laughs], so you know, it's been a good test as a human being and as an artist. As a jazz vocalist I'm trying to do the same thing as a jazz instrumentalist: trying to convey emotion and bring as much as I can of it to the forefront.”

Elling grew up in Chicago, the son of a Lutheran Church choir director. Elling sang and played various instruments in his early years and was eventually exposed to jazz while in college at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. He studied philosophy and religion as a graduate student at the University of Chicago Divinity School, leaving a credit short of a master's degree to follow his dreams and become a jazz singer. It was in these formative years in Chicago that Elling blossomed as a creative force, gaining invaluable experience and confidence.

“Very early on I was into the style of jazz and the players on the recordings I listened to, but it wasn't until I started hanging out with the musicians in Chicago that I really delved deep into the music. I would play gigs in those days and the guys kept pulling me in, wanting me to come back, and that really made me proud.”

Elling's background in philosophy and religion can be heard and felt in every facet of his method and output. He's a renaissance man with deep connections to his surroundings. A lively and honest energy permeates his being, his performances both intricate and curious. He's sort of like a cross between Frank Sinatra, Mike Patton, Kahil Gibran and Johnny Hartman, dazzling with a vast appreciation for sound from all over the globe. He's intense, but open; his music approachable and not guided by the rigidness that philosophy and religion often are. There's a place in between the two planes of thought that he's mastered: an artistic expression as swift and strong as the wind.

“There's nothing as heavy-handed as a philosophical lecture in my performances,” Elling notes. “People come to the concerts to have a beautiful time. To have an experience that is uplifting. Music is very visual for me. I pay close attention to the colors of different chords and modes, and visual beauty certainly influences my approach. I believe an artist is like a flagpole high above, feeling the winds of change before any one else. In many ways, it's the role of the artist to bring that information to the people down below.”

Versatility is perhaps the most enduring quality to Elling's style. He's as powerful singing Brahms, as he is Nat King Cole. He ranges from wild vocalese solos to intimate ballads, to classical immediacy and swinging beat-generation totality. Elling's choice of material is wide-ranging, and on Upward Spiral it's no different: there's a plethora of variance and nuanced compositions across the board. Songs by Gershwin, Lester Lee, Sonny Rollins, Sinatra, Fred Hersch, and Antonio Jobim are just some of the songs honored. Elling has always put as much time into selecting his material, as he has creating and honoring it.

“Well for me I need to have an emotional connection to a composition, Elling mused. “Whether it's a matter of straight connection to the lyrics or the rhythm, if I'm going to be performing the song 200 nights a year, I have to have an idea that the piece belongs to me in some way. I have to know that I can deliver it for all those 200 nights, you know.”

Elling and his family moved from Chicago to New York City in 2008. The capital of jazz drips a particular energy like no other city. You can hear Coltrane in the winds that drift through the Village, the ivory roll of Bud Powell's harmonies along each echoing walk on Broadway, and the eternity of Sonny Rollins' saxophone impressions every time you cross the East River. NYC is the spot to be for one of jazz's truest and most unique practitioners, a place Elling fits with style and grace.

“You got to have your Johnny-get-it-going on here,” Elling laughs. “There are so many beautiful sonic events going on every night here. So drink a lot of coffee and don't stay home, you got to get out there and check everything out man. I mean why else are you paying all the rent to live here.”