Giving Voice to Melody

Kurt Elling discusses what he does with a sense of deep affection and devotion.
“Man, I just feel so fortunate to be a jazz musician at all,” said the singer, composer and lyricist. “I have a hard time thinking of it any other way. It’s such a fulfilling vocation. I love it.”

Especially vocalese, one of Elling’s stylistic specialties.

“There’s a spiritual complement to any attempt at transposing a commitment to humanity through music or art,” said Elling, 43, a Grammy Award winner who once contemplated a career with the World Council of Churches.

Elling, based in Manhattan, N.Y., performed at the White House a year ago. Saturday, he brings his jazzy voice and quartet to Delta College’s Atherton Auditorium. They’ll mentor students during an all-day jazz festival.

On Nov. 24, 2009, he sang at President Barack Obama’s first state dinner.

“Man, it was cool,” said Elling, a Chicago native who still owns a Hyde Park condominium he purchased from Obama when he was an Illinois state senator. “It was a nice night. It was nice to be remembered.”

At Michelle Obama’s request, Elling prepared orchestral charts for “Nature Boy,” a song made famous by Nat “King Cole that Elling sang with the National Symphony Orchestra. Marvin Hamlisch conducted.

Then there’s Don Was (Don Fagenson), a prominent rock/R&B record producer who helped Elling put together “The Gate,” his ninth album since 1995. It’s scheduled for release on Feb. 8.

“He and I had one of the nicest times in the studio,” Elling said of Was. “It was the most relaxed and most satisfying experience, thanks in large measure to Don being so loving and such a bliss ninny.”

Don’t get him started on Dave Brubeck, the jazz pianist and composer who turns 90 on Monday.

“It’s still get a thrill every time I see him,” said Elling, who was influenced by Brubeck as a young musician and has performed with him. “He’s such a beautiful, gracious, loving artist of great stature. He’s been very generous to me. He’s been very kind.”

So were lots of other jazzmen. Born in Chicago, Elling grew up in Rockford, Ill., playing violin, French horn, piano and drums. He sang in choirs at school and St. Paul Lutheran Church where his late father, Henry, was music director.

Initially enthralled by Tony Bennett and Woody Herman on TV, Elling also was schooled in classical music, even though choir was “uncool” and “geeky” in high school.

Elling studied history and religion at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., further sharpening his acumen in an a cappella choir.

While pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, Elling was mastering jazz and scat-style vocalizing in Chicago clubs.

“I was sort of drifting toward the ministry, professorships and intellectualism,” said Elling. Jazz wasn’t a “specific vocation.” His off-campus mentors counseled otherwise: “Eventually, Saturday night won out over Sunday morning.

“I really thought I was gonna have a straight gig. But these jazz musicians put their arms around me time and again and said, ‘Hey, young fella, you’re one of us. Come with us.’ That’s a big deal when you’re young and looking for your way in the world.”

Elling still values that influence and guidance.

“Sure, man. It’s an important part of the gig, man,” Elling said of Saturday’s Delta Jazz Festival where he’ll help mentor students. “It becomes harder and harder for young people to get access to ground-level information. I never wanna be pontificating. I talk about music and answer questions. I try to give my little part.”

In vocalese, pioneered in its current incarnation by Jon Hendricks, Elling composes lyrics that “paraphrase” the emotional dimensions of jazz crafted by instrumentalists.

“You work very hard on the lyrics,” said Elling, who’s had 40 of his songs published in book form. “Getting them to fit the contours of improvised melodies.”

In 2006, he collaborated with Al Jarreau on “Take Five,” a 1959 standard by Paul Desmond for which Brubeck, a 1942 University of the Pacific graduate, and wife Iola composed lyrics.

Elling has “learned to sing” tunes by Desmond, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard and Dexter Gordon. Wynton Marsalis and Sonny Rollins are next.

Though it’s a precursor of rap and hip-hop, vocalese lyrics aren’t expressed over electronically sampled beats and rhythms. They’re melody-based, written specifically for instruments and played by musicians.

“It really came around” in the early 1950s with Eddie Jefferson and King Peasure (Clarence Beeks), Lord Buckley (Richard Myrle Buckley), a native of Tuolumne City and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross.

“There were all kinds of cats out there doing this crazy stuff,” Elling said. “Be-bop and all that kind of stuff.”

Jazz musicians would scat – a wordless counterpart to vocalese – and riff for fun on tour buses.

The “people for whom Jon lifted his pen,” Elling said, were Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and “cats of that era. I’m a generation or two on down the line.”

Vocalese remains a rarely developed style.

On his upcoming album, Elling included only one vocalese tune. The rest have “more normal shapes.”

His non-professorial career move – Elling’s “Dedicated to You” (2009) won a Grammy as best jazz vocal album – definitely is shaping up:

“Ultimately, I’m an artist, a lyricist. Kind of a half-poet. People who do this think in a very different way about information. It’s not about breaking things down. I wanna go places and put different pieces together in new ways. Like any music lover, I love it because my heart is open to that.”