Jazz Inside: Kurt Elling

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Jazz Inside: Can we start by talking about your latest recording, The Gate? What does this recording mean for you? What was the process like for you, and what elements of this recording are you most proud of?

Kurt Elling: I’m proud of it in its totality. I’m proud of the interaction between the cats that we have – this particular assembly of musicians loaning their talents, their skills, and their virtuosity to something that I wanted to pull together. I really had to sing up to their abilities on this record in a way that has exceeded all other times that I’ve had to sing up. It was a big challenge when we were in the studio together. I basically had to comment to myself at least, and just say, “Man, you better start singing some shit!” (Laughs) Because they just really brought it. I’ll also say that the secondary and no less important defining characteristic of this experience was having Don Was at the studio with us and having him back up all the stuff that I wanted to try and give all of us who were in the studio so much love and so much support of the things that we wanted to try out and experiment with and play. That just made all the difference cause it gave us so much more freedom and so much more confidence in what we wanted to do. He was right there as the ultimate big brother in the best possible way.

JI: I think it is so important in jazz, being it is so interactive, to have great chemistry on a personal level with your band mates, and I see the difference between long term band mates to short term similar to relationship between young lovers and a married couple. I think it’s beautiful that you have such a long history playing with Laurence Hobgood. Can you talk about what it is that sustains your relationship and what the partnership has been like for you and how it has evolved?

KE: Sure. First of all, we admire one another’s work and we have a very deep regard for the gifts that one another brings to the table and I think those gifts are very complimentary. I can not orchestrate the way that Laurence can and Laurence can not write a lyric or put a show together, so to speak, like I can. My own compositional sense tends to be much more straight forward and simple. Laurence tends to have a much more complex and labyrinthine take on what is possible in the music so we balance one another out in that way and in many ways. I’ve taken care of the business end and the bandleader end and he very, very, very ably takes care of the rehearsal end by and large, and keeps the charts together and really as far as I’m concerned deserves credit for a lot of the quality control when we do a project together and certainly deserves a much broader audience for his own solo and trio work that he’s recorded for Naim and as a great performer in his own right. Perhaps that’s a story for another article.

JI: As a jazz singer, you can’t hide behind tricks and routine or the consistent tone of your instrument if you are uninspired. After seeing many of your live performances, I feel like you always bring your a-game and are at your best. How do you manage to stay inspired day after day?

KE: I definitely have challenges on occasion and I’ll tell you I give whatever audience I’m in front of the best possible music that I can on that day and on that occasion and at times I’ve had to just dig into my bag of – I’m a professional and though I’m not emotionally in a mood to do this right now, I’m a professional and I have a professional task to deliver and that’s just human nature, but you’re right, it is very raw and very vulnerable. Singers are more vulnerable than any instrumentalist. There is no piece of metal to hide behind, literally. You can’t duck behind the piano. Whether that means that the overall premise that singers just don’t have the possibility of playing by rote, I’m not sure that that’s true although I can’t think of an occasion in the jazz world that I’ve heard that. I’ve certainly seen it in other genres.

JI: And this is kind of an extension to that question – it’s obvious that you have such a comfort level with people and with audiences and one word I associate with your singing is Joy. You seem almost like a kid when you’re about to start singing. One can see that there is a certain enthusiasm and sense of wonder in the way you approach it and I feel that to be able to be comfortable requires more than talent. It takes certain character and personality to do that. Have you had to develop yourself to get to that comfort level, or was it there to begin with? And if you have had to develop it, what kinds of things have you had to do or work through to get there?

KE: Well you grow and you change over time as a human being and if the music you decide to make is transparent and genuine, then what you produce as a musician and what you play in front of people is going to be reflected in that, whether you are fearful, angry, joyful, or whatever the case may be. I certainly did not set out with the level of comfort in front of audiences that I have now. I had an idea in my mind of what that would be like and I made that as a target of my growth. Some things you can work toward consciously and other things have to happen with maturity of time and experience on and off the stand. I’m certainly a happier person just walking around because of my daughter being in the world. That’s made a big change for me and I think that’s reflected in the way I feel on stage because I have a different and more dimensional view of the experience of being alive. I’m more comfortable in life and therefore I’m more comfortable on stage. Also, there is no substitution for time spent on the stage – I’m just throwing this out as a number, 10 gigs a year, or 20 gigs a year, or 50 gigs a year, is not the same as doing 200 or 210 nights a year on the road, and a lot of the stuff that comes has to come because you’ve paid the price and you’ve sacrificed and you’ve had the great gift of being in front of 200 or 210 or 215 audiences a year.

JI: Your delivery as a singer is very spontaneous and there is a lot of surprise in it for the listener but at the same time it is very accurate – you seem very much in control. It’s almost free and precise at the same time, especially your pitch and where you can go with your intervals and your runs. What kind of work was involved for you in that department? Is that also just experience, or did you have a technical routine in your formative years to get to that? And can you share if you did?

KE: Well I was singing from the time I could remember so that has something to do with it. My father was a church musician so I grew up learning how to sing in tune and in harmony with other singers and I grew from there to do very difficult more classical oriented pieces – anything from 12th century plainsong to crazy Norwegian contemporary composers to Mozart to Brahms to everything in between. That is no small thing over the first 18 or 19 years of your life. I’ve also paid attention to instrumentalists and tried to learn from them what more intricate things there are to be played by way of intervallic work and I’ve developed a regular discipline of what it means to be a working artist and there really aren’t any shortcuts for that.

JI: What is it that inspires you and fuels your creativity other than the music itself and other than your own music itself? What kinds of things inspire you to pick up the mic and do your thing?

KE: It’s my vocation. So it’s a day to day calling to pick up the tools of my self. I’m a jazz singer, I want to be a jazz singer, I want to do what jazz singers do and therefore I sit down at my desk and I warm up and I try to work on music everyday because I have a curiosity about it and I know I have more concerts coming up and I know that I have opportunities and obligations for my audience to continue to surprise them.

JI: What to you is the ultimate form of satisfaction, related to what you do or the biggest reward that you can receive as an artist.

KE: To continue to have the opportunity to do it. I feel like I’ve felt for many years now. I’ve already crossed the ultimate finish line. I get to be a jazz singer. I get to go through the discipline, the struggles, the triumphs, the lifestyle and make it work as much as I can in my own way and it’s up to me how the art goes from here, at least in my own case. Certainly I wouldn’t say that on a Meta level. It’s not up to me where the Art, with a capital A goes but it’s up to me where my art goes and that’s a great gift right there, that I can go down a road that belongs to me and I can be a jazz person, so that’s all gravy for me and it’s the main course.

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These are excerpts from a longer interview with Gary Heimbauer and Kurt Elling in the March 2011 issue of Jazz Inside. Kurt also speaks about the difference between recording in the studio and in front of a live audience, his earlier album, Dedicated to You, learning from the jazz tradition, the sacrifices of his vocation, how he goes about writing a vocalese lyric, and more.

You can download of the entire March 2011 issue (PDF) for free here. Kurt’s interview is on pages 6-8, and 30.