In Conversation with Kurt Elling

Kurt Elling sets the standard for the current generation of male jazz singers, with a stage presence, smarts and stylishness that are up-to-date but also deeply in the tradition. Now the vocalist takes on a John Coltrane classic, recreating an iconic album for his latest CD, Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman (Concord Jazz). Elling talks with jazz writer Ted Panken in this extended conversation.
TP: Let’s start with the genesis of your current project, Dedicated To You. You debuted it at the 2006 Chicago Jazz Festival.

KE: Yes. They gave us a call—specifically, Neil Tesser, who is on the board there. They had a double bill with Josh Redman. Josh was going to do the Africa/Brass stuff, and they wanted a nice A/B. Neil said, ‘I know you don’t have much rehearsal time, but would you be interested in doing the Johnny Hartman record?’ I said, ‘I’m happy to have the gig and I’m happy to hit next to Josh, but to just reiterate a record isn’t grabbing me so much. How about if I think about it overnight and figure something out?’ ‘Yeah, of course.’

At that time, I was doing some things with Jim Gailloreto. He’s a saxophone player, multi-reeds, great arranger, and he’s got some stuff out on Naim-Audiophile. At the time, he was writing arrangements for saxophone-string quartet-bass, and he had me on a couple of cuts. He was arranging Wayne’s stuff, and his own things, and he had me pick out a couple of Rumi [a 13th century Sufi poet] things so that he could score it. It was such a beautiful experience. That’s why you want to hit with other cats—they turn you on to ideas. So when they called, I said, ‘Let me have Jim write some stuff and have Laurence write some stuff, and we’ll have a string quartet on it. So that will be at least a different flavor.’ They said, ‘We don’t have any more money, but ….’ I said, ‘That’s never stopped me.’ [LAUGHS]

So Jim wrote some things and Laurence wrote some things, and we had Ari Brown play tenor, and my regular rhythm section at the time, and then we had the Hawk String Quartet. It was at Orchestra Hall, and it was cool. It fell together well. Some other promoters from other festivals were there, and asked, ‘Can we have that?’ ‘Yeah, sure.’ So it sort of snowballed over a couple of years. Laurence and I found some more things for him to write, and we rearranged some stuff. When we were doing some of these arrangements, we had Bob Mintzer at Zankel Hall and a couple of other spots. We tried it out with a bunch of different cats. Then we were in transition from Blue Note to Concord, we knew we had Night Moves coming, but we needed something else to keep the train on the tracks. So I said, ‘Why don’t we just keep working on this; it seems like people like it a lot.’ It’s a very different experience for me just to sing these tunes as opposed to, ‘Let’s stretch out, and I’ll do this gigantic, obnoxious, vocalese thing.’ For once, why don’t we just bite off as much as we can chew, as opposed to more than we can chew?

The material was obviously a pleasure. Laurence has written some beautiful things. Having Ernie Watts on it really completes the picture, because his energy takes it to a place I would not have expected. So much more hard-charging. Yet still, he references Trane in such an organic and easy way. Since I don’t sound anything like Johnny Hartman, then the whole experience is different, which I think is great, because I was never that interested in sort of copping … The whole tribute idea seemed a little antithetical to my overall project. But here’s a way that we can I think legitimately touch on material that people love and that we love, but the way we’re handling it sounds so different. I hope it’s homage through innovation, which I think is the way jazz is supposed to be.

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This is a small excerpt from a long, wide-ranging conversation with Ted Panken and Kurt Elling on June 15, 2009. Kurt speaks of many things, from his early days in Chicago to what it’s like now in New York, with generous helpings of insights about his stagecraft, spirituality, writing, poetry, jazz, and more.

Ted Panken writes about jazz and creative music for Down Beat and Jazziz, among other outlets, and has broadcast it on New York’s WKCR-FM since 1985. He received the 2007 Deems Taylor Award for Jazz Feature Writing.

The full conversation can be found here on the Jazz.com site.