Jazz vocalist Elling in tune with the masters

Jazz singer Kurt Elling doesn’t have to prep too much for Sunday night’s performance at Davies Symphony Hall, where he joins the Count Basie Orchestra. They’re revisiting the classic music Frank Sinatra made in the 1960s with the peerlessly swinging Basie band, much of it arranged by Quincy Jones.
“That music is fully ingrained in my consciousness,” says Elling, the Grammy-winning vocalist who counts Sinatra among the many musicians and poets who’ve fed his expansive art. “To sing these charts with the Basie band is a thrill of a lifetime, and that’s not hyperbole or exaggeration. I’ve worked with a number of big bands, but there’s nothing in life like the Basie band.”

Sinatra was equally jazzed about merging his voice with the band’s bracing sound. “I’ve waited 20 years for this moment,” Sinatra said when he began recording the “Sinatra-Basie” album in 1962. It was the first of three collaborations with the minimalist piano master and his orchestra, which epitomized the relaxed propulsion of swing. Basie died in 1984, but the band continues under the leadership of trombonist Bill Hughes.

Elling, a literary-minded musician who was studying at the University Chicago Divinity School in the early ’90s when he heard the siren call of jazz, will sing a number of tunes from the live 1966 Basie-Sinatra summit, “Sinatra at the Sands.” He may do “Street of Dreams” or “You Make Me Feel So Young,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” or perhaps “One for My Baby.” SFJazz, which is producing the show, got the original charts from the Quincy Jones Archives in Los Angeles.

A largely self-taught singer with a rich, fluid baritone voice, Elling is equally adept interpreting ballads, scatting on standards and setting his original lyrics to improvised jazz solos, in the tradition of vocalese masters like Jon Hendricks. But unlike Hendricks – a prime inspiration, as is former San Francisco singer Mark Murphy – Elling draws on and refers to poets as diverse as Rumi, Rilke and Rexroth in his work.

“I’ve tried to educate myself in the world and what’s beautiful and what has meaning and is lasting. Then I just follow my intuition and see how it fits,” says Elling, who has created multidisciplinary works for Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre.

He’s on the phone from the Los Angeles recording studio where he and famed pop producer Don Was are working on Elling’s new disc, “The Gate.” Like his cinematic 2007 album, “Nightmoves,” which encompassed everything from a bopping Betty Carter tune to Elling’s musical setting of the Theodore Roethke poem “The Waking,” the new record bridges a range of material and arrangements. The mix includes the Miles Davis-Bill Evans classic “Blue in Green” and King Crimson’s “Matte Kudasai.”

“We’re trying to get a sound that is a signature event, in terms of the material and the way the arrangements play themselves out,” says Elling, 42, who won this year’s Grammy for best jazz vocal album for “Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings Coltrane and Hartman.” He aims for an album that “has a heft, a kind of ethos, not just a record with a bunch of tunes.”

Elling loves the signature sound of those evergreen Basie-Sinatra records. Some records define a certain kind of music, “the way certain things in life sound,” he says, and those albums do that.

“These were artistically mature men, emotionally and intellectually in their creative prime,” Elling says. This music, he adds, expresses the experiences of men who are “broken-hearted but strong, bloodied but unbowed.” As for Sinatra, “he sings with this incredible sense of swing, completely relaxed in every setting. He only chooses material he can get 100 percent behind.”

Elling, who recently finished touring with the Monterey Jazz Festival All-Stars and performed a handful of shows at New York’s Lincoln Center with the French accordion virtuoso Richard Galliano, moved from Chicago to New York a couple of years ago with his wife, Jennifer, a dancer, and their 4-year-old daughter, Ana Luiza. But he’s still a Windy City soul.

His career began in Chicago, where he sat in at clubs where prominent musicians like saxophonist Von Freeman encouraged his talent (Elling’s a natural improviser). “He’d put his arm around me and say, ‘Come on back, we need you.’ That happened over and over. I really owe it to the cats for calling me into their world.”

He also met a young politician named Barack Obama. Elling played a little fundraiser for Obama’s Illinois state Senate campaign. Afterward, the candidate sat down and talked with him. Elling was impressed with his knowledge of jazz and interest in people. Elling went on to play fundraisers for Obama’s U.S. Senate campaign, and even bought the Obamas’ Hyde Park condo after they moved into their big house.

“I figured if it was good enough for Barack, it was good enough for me,” says Elling, who was invited to the White House to sing at the Obamas’ first state dinner, for the Indian prime minister. “It’s a mark of his nobility that he was gracious enough to remember and reach out to some two-bit jazz singer.”