Jazz Singer Kurt Elling Shines, Speaks Candidly

Grammy-nominated Jazz vocalist Kurt Elling and his quartet had just mesmerized a swollen crowd of 767 at the College of DuPage’s McAninch Art Center. In the lobby now, with his four year-old daughter coloring at a table merchandising his CDs, he signs autographs and visits with several hundred admirers.
The youngest of four, Elling grew up in Rockford and then Hyde Park, where his church musician father stoked a fire that led him, his wife and daughter to the mecca of jazz, New York, where they live, as he says, “for the moment.” And what a moment it is.

Now 42, his appearance mirrors his music: His face is chiseled, his eyes penetrating. A lean 5′ 9” and 160 lbs., black hair slicked back, he sports a hipster’s tuft of hair beneath his lower lip, a blue-green and black paisley-like shirt, and a black suit with a red kerchief in the pocket. Hip and cerebral – as musicianguide.com notes – he sang in jazz clubs while prepping to be a college professor, only to quit one credit shy of a masters at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School in the early 90s.

“I had really gone to divinity school hoping to explore passion and poetry, and that wasn’t what it was about,” he says with a laugh. “I was in there for a couple three years. All the musicians kept embracing me and welcoming me, and that was naturally what I wanted to do, anyways. So, over time, the balance just shifted.”

Make that accelerated. He honed his chops in Chicago’s jazz circuit and joined the Blue Note record label in 1995. Eight Grammy nominations and records later, he released Dedicated to You (post Blue Note on Concord/Universal records),and sang at a White House dinner in 2009.

With a regal smile, this evening, Elling sings in a rich and velvety baritone, traversing a range of four octaves and complex passages with aplomb. His ballads are smooth and exquisite. Yet, in an instant, he can execute dizzying twists and turns with scary precision. Jazz standards and his compositions form the core as he occasionally launches into scat (substituting nonsense syllables for lyrics and emulating a musical instrument), freeform singing and speaking with music as the backdrop. A master of vocalese, an eccentric-sounding improvisational form of singing to the tone and cadence of jazz musicians solos, at times, he’s been known to push the envelope for extended romps.

This has led some to say that a little Kurt Elling goes a long way, but not tonight. Pianist Laurence Hobgood is sublime and serves as a refined counterpoint, and drummer, Willie Jones, and bass player Harish Raghavan shine in anchoring a more mature and restrained Elling. The audience lingers on every note.

This is especially true of his rendition of the late Brazilian Tom Jobim’s “Luiza”, a ballad sung impeccably in Portuguese. He’s more adventuresome on “Nature Boy”, which his mother requests – and he grants, adding, “Always do what your mother says!”

After the crowd thins, Elling talks about life at this juncture.

On “making it” in the music business: “Making it is a relative term. Man, I’ll know it when I get there! It’s my responsibility and my gift to help to maintain and increase the jazz audience as much as I can, and keep jazz singing going.”

On meeting idols now as a star: “We all have heroes, and when we’re around them, our knees shake. I’ve seen guys in their 60s and 70s come cross guys in their 80s and they’re absolutely deferential. And it’s one of the beautiful things of jazz – we really respect the work that’s gone before us and we’re looking for the next thing.”

On who he reverences these days: “Oh, same as always: John Hendrix and Mark Murphy and Joe Williams and all the great jazz singers who’ve gone before; Dexter Gordon and Freddie Hubbard, and the list goes on and on.” On balancing family life with demands of traveling as a musician: “You just try as hard as you can, and keep trying. There’s no secret answer to that. Any dates you take are too many dates away from your family, but you know, they won’t just send you checks!”

On what’s coming up: “We’ll do a studio record in March. I’m touring with the Monterey Jazz Festival All-Stars in February and April, and we’re doing a project with Richard Galliano in June…and possibly do a recording with him.

On whether the Western Suburbs hold special meaning to him: “Sure…now that we have so many friends around here – I mean, we’ve been married 13, 14 years, so I’ve gotten to meet a lot of people out here that I wouldn’t have gotten to meet otherwise.”