Jazz vocalist Kurt Elling headlines Mercyhurst Independent Arts Fest

Grammy-winning vocalist Kurt Elling starts the Independent Arts Fest at Mercyhurst in style.
In an interview with Jazz Times writer Nate Chinen, Kurt Elling defined a jazz singer as, “somebody who devotes their life to an art form that demands a spirit — at least, a spirit — of improvisation and risk-taking.”

By any measure, Elling, 43, is a jazz singer, and a successful one. Last year, critics in DownBeat magazine’s poll voted him Male Vocalist of the Year for the 11th year in a row, and “Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman” was named Best Jazz Vocal Album, earning Elling his first Grammy award after having been nominated for each of his previous eight CDs.

On Wednesday, Elling will inaugurate the 2011 Pennsylvania Presenters Spring Arts Conference, a showcase for arts presenters that will be open to the public for the first time this year.

Of course, Elling couldn’t help speaking of himself when he defined a jazz singer, but even so, several words stand out. “Spirit” is one.

Elling’s path to the bandstand was conventionally unconventional. Like many singers, he started in church choirs, but he began his professional career only after leaving the University of Chicago Divinity School, one credit short of a master’s degree.

So, the spirit is present. The material Elling chooses — originals and covers — often has a strong metaphysical component. But jazz singers must have technique, too, and Elling’s is eye-opening. He has a baritone that spans four octaves, and he commands it with the fluency of an instrumentalist (he began a recent performance with a sung transcription of a solo by the jazz bassist Charlie Haden).

That artistic choice personifies the “spirit of improvisation and risk-taking” that Elling cited. He is probably the reigning master of vocalese, the singing (and in Elling’s case, writing) of words over recorded improvised jazz solos.

Elling likes to draw these words from traditions far beyond the canon of torch songs and blues that occupy most male jazz singers. With the pianist Fred Hersch, Elling recorded a song cycle based on words from poet Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” and as Artist-in-Residence at the 2006 Monterey Jazz Festival, Elling collaborated with bassist John Clayton on “Red Man/Black Man,” a musical setting of Elling’s own writing with the works of Native American poets.

His social conscience extends well off the bandstand. In 2004 Elling was elected to the Illinois delegation to the Democratic National Convention supporting the party’s eventual candidate, John Kerry. Five years later, he gave a command performance with the National Symphony Orchestra and Marvin Hamlisch for President Obama’s first state dinner at the White House. The President knew Elling from their Chicago days when Elling bought an apartment from rising young State Senator Obama.

On Wednesday, Elling will be the biggest name in the house, and, best of all, it will only cost you $10 to hear him.