In Praise of Kurt Elling

With the world’s greatest jazz voice, a sense of effortless cool and a wealth of celebrity fans, improv-king Kurt Elling’s addiction to touring has – in spite of the genre’s low record sales – seen him play his way on to the list of all-time legends.
It was a warm, muggy evening in London, but the temperature in the packed bar dropped a few degrees when Kurt Elling leant forward and admitted a terrible fear: “You know, back then, in that place, as a young jazz singer, I really did think about what it would be like to have my throat cut. About how I could survive if someone took my voice away. It haunted me.”

Elling’s throat is, mercifully, very much intact (we’ll come to the reason for his phobia later), which means that he still has the vocal cords and the chops to occupy a very particular niche in the music business: the world’s finest living jazz singer. Don’t take my word for it: the 43-year-old has won the Jazz Journalists Association’s Male Singer of the Year award six times, he virtually owns the various Down Beat polls and his fans range from Barack Obama through Jamie Cullum to rising star Krystle Warren. In fact, you’ll be hard pushed to find a musician who isn’t in awe of this man. But what, exactly, is a jazz singer? I had put this to Elling earlier in the day at another bar, in his hotel. The affable singer, relaxed in a lime-green shirt, his hair slicked back, a fringe of hair under his lower lip, smiled when I asked this. He has heard this question many times. But one of Elling’s traits is how seriously he takes his craft and how detailed his answers to questions are (one lengthy response involved a dissection of Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game). This is possibly because of how he came to the music. He was studying divinity at college in Chicago, when (“Thanks to some guys down the hall playing Dexter [Gordon] and Miles [Davis]”) he made what he calls “a left turn”. Instead of finding the meaning of life, he discovered the jazz life. And he tackles the issues of both with equal intensity.

“I think the answer to what is a jazz singer is fairly straightforward. It is someone who has studied the history, who knows what has gone before and can bring that to his or her own performance,” he said. “In addition, they are someone who can improvise on all that. What is improvisation? It is composition speeded up, without time for reflection or correction, it is necessarily created in real time, in front of an audience. That’s what jazz singers do.”

And Elling does it brilliantly. However, there are those who come to see him perform and find the experience, at least initially, confounding. This is because we are attuned to our jazz standards being sung in a particular style, our sensibilities bludgeoned by repetition and overfamiliarity. If “Nature Boy” is announced, we expect to hear a version that sticks pretty close to Nat King Cole’s; “My Foolish Heart” is defined by the nuances of Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett. But Elling doesn’t stick to the conventional blueprint of the Great American Songbook. His timing, phrasing, his ability to scat – really scat, not the pale efforts you might be used to hearing – his impressive vocal range, all mean he can take conventional material and render it new and sometimes shocking. “Well,” he said with a grin, when I suggested his approach might unsettle non-jazz fans. “I hope I unsettle a few jazz fans, too.”

Elling won a Grammy last year for Dedicated To You, a reboot of an album by tenor god John Coltrane and the rather more obscure singer Johnny Hartman, a strange pairing in many ways, but one that produced a fine, haunting record back in 1963. Elling and his long-term collaborator, Laurence Hobgood, took the material and found a fresh and contemporary take on it, although it was still recognisably a relatively mainstream jazz album. However, his new recording, The Gate, echoes his earlier, more eclectic recordings by ranging further afield. Much further.

It opens, for instance, with “Matte Kudasai”, a King Crimson number. King Crimson? I told him Fripp and his band are something of a guilty pleasure in the UK and he laughed. “I love them. It’s pretty testosterone driven, but it’s something I had wanted to do for a while. And why not? If you like music – good music – then you are going to enjoy, say Beethoven on one hand and Smashing Pumpkins on the other. What I didn’t say with this record was, I know, let’s do a “pop” album. I just looked for tunes the band could bring something new and exciting to, and that I wanted to sing.”

Well, maybe he didn’t intend a pop album, but The Gate was produced by Don Was, a man normally found helming the good ship Rolling Stones and many other stellar vessels in rock, pop and country. “We had four days to put it down; Don knows how to get the best out of musicians very quickly,” he said. “He’s a good cat.” Elling, by the way, is one of very few guys on the planet who can use the word “cat” and make it sound entirely natural. Also on the record is “Stepping Out”, which takes larger steps than the Joe Jackson original, and a version of “Norwegian Wood”. But, on first listen, the stand-out track is “Samurai Cowboy”. Based on Marc Johnson’s “Samurai Hee-Haw”, Elling has penned a witty stream of consciousness that tumbles out of his mouth with hardly any evidence of him taking a breath.

Reworking the existing repertoire is an integral part of Elling’s approach, where he either writes lyrics to transcribed jazz solos (so-called vocalese) or puts words to instrumentals, as he did with “Resolution”, the second movement of Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”, and now “Samurai Cowboy”. This new version of Johnson’s piece, I suggested, will blow people away. He smiled ruefully. “If they get to hear it.” He was referring to the fact that jazz record sales do not match those of pop records. Forty thousand units and you have a huge hit on your hands. Jazz economics have long depended on what rock and pop only discovered with the collapse of the CD market – for it to be a viable career option you have to get out and play live. Which is why Elling does up to 200 shows a year. The best place to actually “get” Elling is to see him in performance.

Four hours after interviewing him, I am in the audience for his show at Ronnie Scott’s. He begins by wandering on stage, pushing aside the microphone and launching into an octave-spanning scat saxophone solo, complete with fingering of the imaginary instrument. There are a few uncomfortable giggles from those who expected a different kind of singer. Then a stunned silence descends as Elling shows just what his velvet baritone can do, soaring up and down his four octaves. The show is a tour de force, and I come away with Elling’s infectious chik-chiks of “Samurai Cowboy” filling my head.

The primary thing that strikes me is just what a consummate performer he is, far more relaxed, warm and funny than during a formal interview, quickly winning the crowd over with a few well-placed anecdotes, a bit of clowning with an uppity microphone, and letting the band (especially the note-generating machine that is pianist Laurence Hobgood) have a chance to shine.

Over a post-show whisky, I ask him about this enviable ease with an audience. “Well, when I decided to become a singer I said to myself I’d take every gig that was on offer,” he says. “So I was up there playing ‘Mustang Sally’ at weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, and learning all the time. OK, did I consciously realise I was studying microphone technique, where to place monitors and how to work the room? No. But that’s what was happening. Then I got the gig at the Green Mill.”

Ah, Chicago’s Green Mill. One of the most famous jazz joints in the world, it has a mythology all of its own, from its days as a hang-out for Hollywood stars such as Charlie Chaplin and Bronco Billy (when there was a Chicago film industry to rival that of Los Angeles), to a venue for Al Jolson, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Recently, under the ownership of Dave Jemilo, who brought it back from the brink in the Eighties, it has helped make stars out of Elling and jazz and blues singer Patricia Barber, who both remain fiercely loyal to the place.

“I played the Mill every Wednesday night for eight years. It was invaluable to my development,” insists Elling. “And there’s a lot of history around you; you can feel it in the fabric of the building. The most famous story to come out of there is that of Joe E Lewis. Back in the Twenties, the club was, of course, mob-owned. It was a speakeasy. Capone had a stake. The booth he liked to sit in is still there, positioned so he could see both entrances in case of a raid. There were underground tunnels for bringing the booze in. Capone put a manager called Jack ‘Machine Gun’ McGurn in charge. McGurn hired singer Joe E Lewis, paying him $650 a night. A fortune. But rival mobster Bugsy Malone offered him a grand a week to play the Rendezvous across town and, despite being warned not to, Lewis took it.”

Big mistake.

“McGurn let him be for a while, but after a few months he sent some thugs over who cut out Lewis’ tongue and slashed his throat, severing his vocal cords.” Elling shudders. “You know, back then, in that place, as a young jazz singer, I really did think about what it would be like to have my throat cut. About how I could survive if someone took my voice away. It haunted me. Luckily Dave Jemilo is a much more forgiving employer than Machine Gun. Anyway, Lewis did survive and became a comedian – he wrote all the drunk jokes for the Rat Pack.” Such as: “I only drink as much as the next man. Luckily the man next to me is Dean Martin.” “Frank Sinatra eventually made a film about the story called The Joker Is Wild and he came down to the club to see Lewis perform, even though he probably never sang there himself.”

Here we are. It took a while, but sooner or later Big Frank’s shadow falls across the path of any jazz singer. “It certainly is a giant shadow. The thing about Sinatra is, he wrote the book not only on what it meant to be a singer and how to swing, but also how to be a man,” he says. “You looked to Sinatra to figure out how a man should dress, behave around women or with his friends, how to cope with a broken heart. And everyone who tried to copy him as an entertainer was doomed to be a second-rate Sinatra – you have to feel for all those Vic Damones out there, because there was no way they could compete with the original Frank.”

Sinatra remains a colossus in the field of jazz singers (although there are those who insist he was no such thing), but Elling is not one of the many who slavishly mimic Frank’s technique or are satisfied with simply plundering his songbook or lifting his arrangements.

“No, but I hope if you listen carefully to me, you’ll hear Frank now and then, see what I took from him. But maybe on any given night you might also hear an echo of Jon Hendricks, Al Jarreau, Eddie Jefferson and Mark Murphy.”

Pay close attention and you’ll detect a nod to all of those in Elling’s singing on The Gate. But there’s something else in there, too, controlling and harnessing those influences, a signature sound more powerful than the spectral presence of the above greats. It’s Kurt Elling. He is, after all, very much his own man.