Jazz vocalist Kurt Elling brings ‘The Gate’ to Kennedy Center

Kurt Elling, the owner of a remarkable four-octave voice and astounding improvisational chops, is regarded by his peers as the ultimate jazz vocalist.
This week he shares his talents in two Kennedy Center shows Saturday evening and a master class Sunday morning. His band includes his longtime pianist and music director Laurence Hobgood, John McLean on guitar, Harish Raghavan on bass and Ulysses Owens on drums.

The show is built around “The Gate,” his latest album, which soars to heretofore improbable levels of jazz vocalese. Even before it is released, there is considerable buzz about its content, a collection of numbers performed with audible ease no matter that the virtuosity employed surpasses the comfort zone of most musicians.

“Laurence and I have been a team for at least 15 years because of a similar desire to play something that we — or nobody — have ever played before,” Elling said. “It’s expressly about trying to capture honest sounds in the ether that are not barred by history or preconceptions.

“Every time I make a record, I have a new set of tasks in my mind for myself. All my musicians are of top caliber, so I have to step up my game and rise into a new space. I want each album and each live performance to be a step forward for me and my fans.”

Elling is so admired by jazz critics that he has captured their awards year after year. He won the Down Beat Critics Poll 11 times, the Jazz Journalists Association Male Singer of the Year Award six times, and this year received the Nightlife Award for Outstanding Jazz Vocalist in a Major Engagement. After eight nominations, he earned the 2009 Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album. The winning album, “Dedicated to You,” was inspired by the classic 1963 recording “John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman” featuring the legendary sax player and jazz vocalist.

Elling’s journey to the top of his field began in Illinois as the son of a Lutheran church Kapellmeister. He devoted his early years to singing classical music in church and school choirs before his introduction during college to Dave Brubeck, Herbie Hancock, Ella Fitzgerald and the existing stable of jazz cats. During his graduate studies in the philosophy of religion, he began singing in Chicago clubs and soon perfected his style of improvisation. Just short of graduation, he committed his life to singing jazz.

“When you come to the table to interpret what someone else has written, you utilize descriptive improvisation,” he said. “You are acting as a composer when you are in front of an audience and working with others in real time by taking command of your technique and breathing in a healthy way.

“Whenever I’m onstage, I like to interest an audience, so I try to write all the time to put something new into the set list. By the time we record a new album, we have three-fourths of the material ready to go. Then it’s time to focus on what more we can add and create beyond what others expect.”