Interview: Kurt Elling at Cheltenham

KURT ELLING appeared at this year's Cheltenham Jazz Festival in Radio 2's “Friday Night Is Music Night” tribute to Frank Sinatra, with Guy Barker and the BBC Orchestra, and fellow singers Anthony Strong and Clare Teal. He is also working with Barker on a new drama production based on the life of jazz singer Joe E Lewis in 1920s Chicago. Lewis's story was previously made into a 1957 Frank Sinatra film called “The Joker is Wild”. Peter Jones caught up with Kurt in Cheltenham.
LondonJazz News: How hard do you push yourself as a singer? I'm thinking of tunes that are difficult to sing – the long-held notes in Higher Vibe, the ten minutes of vocalese in Tanya Jean…

Kurt Elling: I've been fortunate to be given physiologically the right voice for a singer. I mean, I'm built to sing. I have a very flexible instrument that much of the time, if I treat it right, does what I want it to do. I don't think of it so much as challenging my voice for the sake of it, it's more that I know my voice can do things. So it becomes a question of – what should I do with it? I want to discover stuff that I didn't know was possible. Somebody like Bobby McFerrin does the same thing, although the area of his discovery has more to do with improvisational tactics and wordless music. He's just hyper-capable. But he and I are going down two different roads. I mean, mine has so much to do with lyrical interpretation and vocalese things and trying to tell stories through these longer aria-like set-ups where I'll do a Dexter Gordon thing or a John Coltrane thing. To me it's just a joy because I like to be athletic when I sing. It's the natural place for me – real loud. I like to do big things and make big statements.

LJN: Do you still practise every day?

KE: I practise a lot. I've got a lot of different material to get through. But some days I have to let it rest. I mean, our apartment in New York is not big enough… some days I just have to wait for my wife to go on errands. You can imagine a singer as loud as I am in a two-bedroom apartment! And just doin' scales and stuff is a bore for anyone to have to listen to, let alone the girl of your dreams, twenty years into a marriage [Kurt is married to the dancer Jennifer Carney]. She doesn't need to hear la-la-la-la-la-la-laaaah one more time, believe me!

LJN: You're known for your singing debt to Mark Murphy.

KE: Mark set a standard for individualism, and he set the bar for interpretive personalization, I guess you might say, in the jazz idiom. So eccentric, so unique. Such a personal and singular take on songs.

LJN: He seemed to want his voice to be an instrument, like a human saxophone…

KE: Well, he followed Jon Hendricks down that road. Jon has been the great be-bop, truly jazz-based jazz singer. In his scatting improvisation, there's nobody around who can touch him for be-bop accuracy and for the use of that language, that style. And he's a showman of a certain era. And Mark was much less influenced, strictly speaking, by be-bop licks. He has them in there as licks, but his scatting is much more individual, and much less at the knee of instrumentalists like Charlie Parker, Johnny Hodges… than Jon. And Jon obviously had a great running partner in Dave Lambert, who was a great be-bop scat singer in his own right, a wonderful musician, and a thrilling singer.

LJN: That Lambert, Hendricks and Ross stuff stills sounds great today.

KE: Yes, that stuff's gonna be eternal, it's so clever, and the mother wit in Jon's lyrics… Nobody's gonna be as clever in that idiom and the use of language and the twisted syntax and the invention of words as Jon has been. Mark came from a different angle. He learned from Jon, and he was physically present when they were doing a lot of things. But Mark could do things that were different from Jon. Mark investigated ballads in a much more dramatic fashion. Jon was much more about swinging and be-bop scatting and language invention, and Mark's stronger places are not in the scatting but in ballad interpretation…

LJN: Examples? Ones that you like?

KE: Oh, they're rife. The medley he made of The Night We Called It A Day and There's No You. What a great idea! I'll never forget hearing him sing Never Let Me Go for the first time, because man, he feels it so deeply. And he interprets it in such an emotionally raw fashion. And then there's Mark's work as a spoken word artist as well, keeping that beatnik tradition alive.

LJN: You've done that a fair bit too.

KE: Yeah, because Mark really shows any other jazz singer things that are possible in the music, that are forward-looking, that have to do with the possible breadth of the jazz singing world. You have to take each individual jazz singer for the best qualities that they bring. Joe Williams brings that soulful blues, that sophisticated blues of urban manhood. That magnificent sound, and the articulation. And it's big band. He was a big loud singer. Mark brings the savage, broken-hearted passion, the balladry, the drama, the spoken word aspects…

LJN: And the total spontaneity.

KE: Total. Bouncin' off the walls. Crazy stuff, right? But it's always Mark, you can tell that in a second. Versus a Mel Tormé, who was able to be super-spontaneous in his improvisational ability, a hyper-articulate musician, incredibly polished, but you never feel that savage ripped-open heart. It's a lot more trained than what Mark is doing. Mark is much more musically raw. He's not makin' the changes all the time, it's more about the expressiveness.

LJN: That's why he'll never be a major name outside of jazz.

KE: You know, the mainstream doesn't want… (he ponders for a moment) One's natural gifts and creative inclinations have got to match so precisely with the zeitgeist. To hit that frequency with a large audience. And Sinatra, he was exactly the right guy with exactly the right gifts, everything, and the timing was right, and the technology was right. He was incredibly fortunate to fit into the situation. And Mark's thing, and I dare say my thing, I mean unless lightning strikes for me, I don't know what that would look like at this point. At 47, I would be really surprised if suddenly something blew up and wow, I'm now actually as big a star as I thought I would be when I was 12!

LJN: And what do you think has been your own unique contribution to the jazz singing tradition?

KE: I believe I'm going down a road that is my own. I believe that the sonic identifiers that still show up in my performances, that come from people like Mark and Jon and Joe Williams… that they give me a family resemblance to those great singers. I wanna be a part of the family. And I believe that I'm not overwhelmed by any of those signifiers. I mean that I still sound like myself. I have that confidence. I've sung 200 nights a year for the last 20 years. And I trust that I've got my own sound and I'm not weirded out by anybody saying, this sounds like him, or him. Because that's a compliment to me. Because that means it's ingrained.

LJN: But the only way to start sounding like yourself is to start out trying to sound like other people. How else are you going to do it?

KE: That's right. If you wanna have a family resemblance. I'm taking my own path. I think the records that I've made have been of quality. I've taken a lot of chances, and I've been growing. I'm confident that I'm making some kind of progress, because when I listen to early records, I can hear how much I didn't know. It's like, wow, I wouldn't do that again! And I hope that 20 years from now, God willing, if I'm still out here, that I'll look back at the things I'm doin' now and say, good for you, man, you were really trying a thing. And now I can hear what I didn't know in 2015.

LJN: Which brings me back to my original question that you're continually pushing yourself to do interesting stuff, challenging stuff, and that's what keeps you moving forward.

KE: What's the point otherwise? It would be boring for me and it would be boring for my audience if I were to start just reiterating.

LJN: Well yes, because the alternative would be to hit the cabaret trail and just do your greatest hits for another 20 years.

KE: (laughs) Greatest hits! 'That one sold 30 copies!'

LJN: Speaking of which, do you think jazz will ever find the kind of mainstream acceptance that it once had, or will it be forever a minority sport?

KE: Man, I think the world moves on.

LJN: Jazz moves on too.

KE: Jazz moves on, and continues to press forward, there are incredible brilliant innovators of sound who deserve massive audiences. The world would be a better place. It would be a more intelligent and civil and exciting and compassionate place if people… but people don't have the wherewithal. They don't have the time, and they don't have the brain-space to listen to more serious music. They're just being assaulted by so much stuff. And we're trying to do stuff that really matters, that takes you down a road, that you've gotta sit still for and try to figure out and digest, and that's always going to be a minority music. As everything accelerates. Even though the things that we're doing are responding to current provocations and culture. But there are so many things to worry about at this point. I mean… the Fukushima plant is dumping a whole bunch of radiation into the Pacific Ocean. We're not going to have any giraffes left because assholes are going out and hunting them. What the fuck do you want to shoot a giraffe for, you mother? That's just bullshit. You know, the water crisis that's on the way. Who's going to own the water, and then, you know, Syria, God…

LJN: So, there are more important things to worry about than whether anyone's listening to jazz?

KE: Yeah, man. Way more important. We're on death's doorstep here if we don't watch it. Just because of the technology and what we're able to do to each other is so grave and so overpowering. So if I can be with Guy Barker and the BBC Concert Orchestra on a Friday night, it's a huge victory. We're lucky it continues at all. [ends]