Jazz vocalist Kurt Elling has a way with words

Kurt Elling left the University of Chicago Divinity School just short of a graduate degree, but he's a master at preaching with his music.
As an accomplished singer, Elling enjoys not only improvising musically but also lyrically. A devotee of vocalese, Elling writes lyrics for improvised music in a style popularized by Eddie Jefferson and Jon Hendricks.

“It's a recently developed substream of poetry,” Elling said. “I came to it through the writing of Eddie and Jon and also others who picked it up and ran with it.”

Elling will perform at the Boscov's Berks Jazz Fest on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Reading Area Community College's Miller Center for the Arts. The Kutztown University Jazz Ensemble will open the show. Tickets are $39.

Connecting with the crowd

Elling got his start in Chicago more than 20 years ago and has been consistently recognized by the record industry and audiences for his talent since then. Each of his 10 albums has been nominated for a Grammy Award (he won in 2009 for “Dedicated to You”), and he's been named the critic's choice for Male Vocalist of the Year by DownBeat magazine for 13 years running.

His 2012 release, “1619 Broadway – The Brill Building Project,” shows both the depth and breadth of his unique talent with covers of songs as diverse as “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” popularized by The Monkees in the 1960s, and Sam Cooke's “You Send Me.”

“It's a celebration of the Brill Building (in New York City),” Elling said. “It was home to generations of songwriters everything from 'You've Lost That Loving Feeling' to 'Locomotion' to 'On Broadway.' We've put together a project in which we do some things I felt I could connect with emotionally and in a jazz context.”

Cuts from that album will be featured at Saturday night's show, he said, but there will also be music from previous recordings, too.

“There are always favorites that I think people come out to hear,” he said, “and, of course, surprises.”

A search for the right words

Surprises are de rigueur for jazz artists who thrive on improvisation, and Elling is no different. Vocalese takes improvisation lyrically to a place that scat singing cannot and gives Elling the opportunity to put words to how the music makes him feel.

“Eddie Jefferson stuck mostly to humorous lyrics,” Elling said. “Jon exceeded that and wrote on a more diverse set of topics like food and broken hearts and had more explicit storytelling. But that was 50 or 60 or 70 years ago. I come from a very different scenario of education and experience, so there is a whole lot more information that I can convey.”

For Elling, that means mining the fertile depths of his brain, teasing out both philosophy and logic and a yearning to make sense of the universe.

“I have tended to write (songs) that are more spiritually searching,” said Elling who was just shy of a master's in philosophy of religion when he left the University of Chicago Divinity School to pursue jazz full-time. “That is part of my natural search and the reading of the philosophy of religion in a deeper fashion.”

Inspiration and perspiration

While Elling's interests may be esoteric, his approach to songwriting is more visceral.

“It begins with my falling in love with a specific piece of music,” he said. “And then I have to listen to it more closely to see if it would be feasible to complete a vocalese lyric. Then it's up to me to lash myself to the desk and do the work.”

He said every project takes both inspiration and perspiration until he has said what he wants to say while preserving the integrity of the music that first inspired him.

Elling said he's happy with the choice he made and the way that he can work out his personal spiritual path musically.

“I had a lot of questions that I wanted to explore – things I wanted to come to terms with,” he said of his choice in graduate studies. “I was searching. But I never felt comfortable in a pulpit. I'm more interested in the questions than in any sort of answers.”

And jazz suits that inclination quite well.

“As a jazz artist, we step onto the stage with some idea of what will happen,” he said. “Jazz is the music that asks the artist to attempt to play a series of notes in a coherent and emotional setting, and it's often something that every artist has heard before. But it's always a work in progress. You need the expertise to create new melodies every night. It runs parallel to the way I live my life and my intellect, and that appeals to me.”