Jazz star Kurt Elling is still finding new ways of doing things
Duke Ellington had a saying: “the material is the material.” It’s a philosophy acclaimed jazz vocalist Kurt Elling has taken to heart through his career. When the lights go down and curtain sweeps back, it really is all about the song.
“Sometimes the rhythms of a song that seem the most obvious to you have been totally overlooked by the original composer,” he says, explaining his famous improvised style of performance. “In other cases, maybe… it’s already perfect. If you don’t have a better idea [of how to approach the song], why do it?”
Jazz fans will be invited to take a trip back in time when Elling (51) visits Cork on October 26. One of the big names performing at the city’s Guinness-sponsored Jazz Festival in 2019 he will be in town to celebrate the repertoire of some of the great jazz singers of the past.
‘A Century of Heroes’ promises to be part homage, part history lesson, part introduction to the art of jazz vocalisation. Jazz buffs — or even those mildly curious about jazz — owe it to themselves to be there.
“It will make for a fairly lively evening,” he promises. “I will address songs associated with people like Billy Eckstine and Jon Hendricks — my antecedents.”
Elling is a master of jazz singing. He has rich and expressive voice. And he is always striving to push in fresh directions. Improvisation is a key component of his outlook. Each concert is an opportunity to try something new.
“Every performance is different,” he says. “Every crowd is different. There is always something in the air. Whether my jokes are new… is a different matter.”
Elling came up in the supremely competitive Chicago circuit. He’d been a jazz fan growing up in the American Midwest and had explored it in earnest at college in Minnesota. But it was when he returned to the city of his birth that he truly fell in love.
“I was lucky enough to go to the clubs. I realised, oh my goodness, there’s a whole culture around this: men and women living this life. That’s when I found out it was a living entity.”
He knew he had talent. But he also had to learn to apply himself. And to think about the material he performed. If an artist cannot find a new way “into” a song, then what is the point of taking it on to begin with?
“You need a musical discipline,” he says. “You’ve got to figure out what possibilities there are when you are improvising, so that it’s not just random. You have to think of it like a language. You really want to practice the language so that whatever you have to say you say it as eloquently and beautifully as possible.
“That means mastering the various forms of the jazz idiom. You have to figure out who you are as a person. And what you offer as an individual.”
Elling signed to the prestigious label Blue Note in 1995. His debut album, Close Your Eyes, was nominated for a Grammy. It turned heads with its blend of progressive jazz (he performed material by Herbie Hancock and others), beat poetry and spoken word.
Later records would contemplate the human heart (This Time It’s Love) and his relationships with the past masters of the form. One of his most fascinating albums was last year’s The Questions, which features covers of Peter Gabriel’s ‘Washing of the Water’ and Dylan’s ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’.
The LP has been received as one of Elling’s most pointedly political yet, as he acknowledges. “It’s the first in a series of steps by me to try to address the various disasters and catastrophes that are befalling us.”
One of the most interesting challenges he has undertaken was covering U2’s ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’, which he did in 2015.
“U2 are obviously one of the world’s great bands,” he says. “Those guys have never been afraid of announcing their own politics. And God bless them for it.”
He was drawn to U2 in part because he wanted to be open to influences outside of jazz. As a singer, it is vital always be receptive to new idioms.
“The world is so rich and vibrant. There are masterful musicians from around the globe that have such thrilling important gifts to offer. I want to receive those gifts. It’s not just about me coming with a message, you know: dig me.”
Elling is firmly on the sides of the progressives, with his website declaring his support for causes such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project. He feels that jazz is an inherently political genre — but that this politics can take multiple forms.
It can be as explicit or implicit as the artist wishes. And of course the meaning of “political” changes depending on where you are in the world. If he’s learned anything across his career it is that there are no hard and fast rules.
“The short answer is that yes, jazz is political,” he says. “The longer answer is that it depends on the context. [It depends on] whether the artist in question wants to pronounce that political sensibility overtly or merely hint at it. Each audience is receptive in its own way. I was in China recently. Saying that jazz is the music of democracy is not going to be make it feasible for it to get a toehold there.
“A good friend of mine who is Chinese gave a very eloquent 45 minute address on what jazz is. He said jazz is music for the heart: it means joy, experience, one master coming out and singing his story to you.
“At first you say, ‘man that’s a cop out’. Until you realise… well, that’s what they are allowed to say. If there is going to be a situation where jazz is allowed to gain a toehold it is coming to come that way, where it is for the heart.
“Whatever stories are going to creep in are going to creep in. The music itself will be the message.”
Kurt Elling plays City Hall Cork on Saturday, October 26 as part of the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival