In Conversation with…Kurt Elling

To describe Kurt Elling as a jazz singer is only part of the story. He is also an explorer, a scholar, a poet, a historian, a photographer, a traveller and widely acknowledged king of his artform.
At once, and in his stylish, idiosyncratic way, Elling's vast repertoire pays homage to jazz's rich musical heritage while taking it into new and exciting creative territory. It is this combination – always expressed in his own voice, so to speak – that has made the Chicago-born Elling so popular.

At the end of May, Elling sings two concerts with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra as part of the 2015 Melbourne International Jazz Festival's Opening weekend. The concerts, conducted by MSO Associate Conductor Benjamin Northey, will also include Elling's own long-time quartet featuring Mads Baerentzen (piano), John McLean (guitar), Clark Sommers (bass), and Kendrick Scott (drums).

“It's a pleasure to play music with a lot of other dedicated musicians and have time with a dedicated audience,” Elling says down the line from Toulouse, one of his stops on a recent tour of France.

Elling and his musicians spend around 150 to 200 days a year on the road. It is a punishing schedule, and Elling misses New York and his wife and nine-year-old daughter. But that's the cost of being an in-demand vocalist who really belongs to the world.

Does being in a particular place – say, Toulouse – make Elling feel any different about what he does? “Every audience has its own personality and level of energy, and sounds depend on the shape of the room,” he says. “I do as well as I can on any given night to meet that energy – to romance it, I guess, into a higher state. But it's a thrill and pleasure for me to perform and I hope it's something of an equal pleasure and thrill for the audience.”

For his Melbourne audiences, Kurt Elling's two Hamer Hall concerts will feature numbers from his latest album, Passion World, which will be released around the same time. “It's a collection of compositions I've been gathering as I've visited countries over the years,” he says. “There are lots of things I hope people will enjoy. I've been to France so many times, and there are some pieces in French. I've re-harmonised some Brahms, and there are a couple of pieces in Spanish from visits to Cuba.”

Although influenced by classical music – Elling began his singing life as a chorister – he says he's never felt he has the purity of voice to be a classical singer. “It has a lot more nooks and crannies in it,” he says. “I'm interested in doing things that haven't been done before in new combinations. As a performer, I continue to be pretty diverse in my interests.”

Kurt Elling's true calling is the art of vocalese: defined as the writing and performing of words over recorded improvised jazz solos. Words, indeed, matter very much to Elling, who often sets his own lyrics. The distinguished American poet Robert Creeley has written that Elling's words “are informed by a powerful poetic spirit.”

In Elling's view, words and music must be equal partners. “You're telling a story and you're trying to invite people along to what is sometimes a complicated event, lyrically speaking. I must have a clear musical presentation so people get lost as few times as possible in the course of a set.”

Writing lyrics can, he says, be hard. “It's an interesting challenge for sure, and it changes with every project. You can rack your brains for the right words, the right rhyming scheme and the right story to tell. In a vocalese piece you need to marry the content, let alone the rhyming scheme and the flavour of the words. Then you have to keep not only to the original intention of the soloist but the original composer. There are quite a few directions I'm pulled in.”

One of Elling's recent albums, 1916 Broadway: the Brill Building Project, is a tribute not only to New York, where the singer and his family moved in 2008, but to an evocative piece of midtown real estate. From the mid-1930s to the 1970s The Brill Building's tenants were associated with the pop music industry, most of them composers and lyricists. The Brill Building Sound lives on, even though the building itself is now being turned into apartments.

For Elling, the Brill, and the immortal music it produced, provided the perfect inspiration. “I'd often walk by the building on the way to my manager's office, and I could hear the ghosts coming out of there,” he says. “At the time, I was working on a project to investigate NY more thoroughly. I'd done so many projects over the years for my hometown of Chicago, through theatrical things and literary things and poetic things. In New York I wanted to reach out for some of that history. It was a happy coincidence.”

Elling has also devised a touring show, Elling Swings Sinatra, as a tribute to the great singer, whose centenary falls in December. “You're never going to outdo Sinatra, and it would do me no good to try,” he says. “At this point, I'm almost 50 years old, and I'm going to sing the way that I'm going to sing.”

Yet, Elling views Sinatra as a formidable influence. “I don't know how I could be in the position I'm in without having done due diligence on Sinatra. He defined a certain way of singing. He is the apex predator of male swinging singers. I don't even think I need to be conscious about bringing his influence into my work at the moment because he is so much a part of it.”

A part of it, but also essentially different, as Elling explains. “It's 2015. Loads of music has happened since Sinatra's heyday, and since many of his tunes. I've got different musicians surrounding me and it's my task to play what's right for the music in this hour and what's right for these musicians. I have to bring what I love into the future, if possible.”

What, therefore, is the future of jazz itself? “Well, the place is flooded with talented young musicians who love the history and love the scene and want to take their rightful place. What's more challenging is the revolution in how the fans are accessing music. There's no standard infrastructure, no defined ladder to climb. Jobs are hard to come by.”

Elling says he would not like to face such challenges. “It's hard enough to maintain a career, to continue to connect with audiences I've made friendships with,” he says.

“I don't see jazz becoming the next popular thing: it comes in waves, in fits and starts. It's for me and for people around me to try to push the music forward as we see it's fit to honour. To keep the honour of our best work at the front of your minds and to honour the past that's been given to us, and to reach out for something that's never been played before.”

Wherever Kurt Elling goes in this world, he takes his camera. He always photographs the airport where he has just landed, and always takes a photograph from the window of his hotel room. “It's difficult to remember what you've seen, and this interests me as a series. It is to try to acknowledge the varying nature of what I live through. Travel certainly has its challenges, but I try to find the stark beauty of what's in that environment.”

A gallery in St Louis, Missouri, plans an exhibition of Kurt Elling's window pictures. So, another string to his bow.

“Man, I just try to have an interesting life. I hope it's not just ego that makes me post all these pictures.”