Jazzin’ Around: A Conversation with Kurt Elling

Mike Ragogna: Mister Kurt Elling, thank you for this interview for Huffington Post and those who'll be listening at Solar-Powered KRUU-FM.
Kurt Elling: Everything is groovy when it's solar powered, man!

MR: [laughs] That's almost like a station ID, thank you.

KE: You've got it.

MR: Okay, let's look at this list of songs from your new album, 1619 Broadway – The Brill Building Project. You start off with “On Broadway,” written by got Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. It's one of the most famous hits of all time, and when you think of The Brill Building and all the talent at that address, God. Kurt, you expanded the concept of The Brill Building to the generations of writers that have come out of there, not just staying with the most sixties-ish hits and writers.

KE: Well, I didn't want to be didactic. I did and do want to celebrate classic Brill-era compositions. You mentioned a number of the songwriting teams there in your intro, but that era also means people like Burt Bacharach and Hal David, it means Neil Diamond, it means Gerry Goffin and Carole King, it means Doc Pomus, but I didn't want to be didactic in my treatment. I did want to, as you rightly note, lift up the larger history of The Brill. The Brill Building's been in existence since the early 1930s, and composers and songwriters have been working out of that building, publishers, people making demos… A lot of great performers had offices in there. They've been operating since the 1930s, and even to this day, the place is chock-a-block with media types and with studios that produce rap artists; Paul Simon still has his offices. So I really did want to cast as broad a net as I could, not only as a quasi-historical examination, but also because it allowed me to be led a little bit more by my own creative intuition and less by some kind of school report technique.

MR: When you look at this list of people who have come out of The Brill Building it's overwhelming. You also want to throw out names that don't necessarily fit into The Brill Building lexicon, like Duke Ellington and Jimmy Hamilton, Al Dubin and Harry Warren.

KE: Exactly! Johnny Mercer had his offices in there, and not only that, but Nat Cole had his management offices in The Brill Building for quite some time, and there was actually a jazz club there for about four and a half years. It's a music building. For me, as a jazz artist, jazz is, in part, defined by its ability to take into itself and transform any other kind of music that it desires, that it finds interesting, and make it into jazz material. That's a habit that's as old as jazz itself, people taking “How High The Moon” and writing their own Bird-inspired licks over it. That's as old as jazz itself. So, for me, it's just another step in the process and I hope and believe that I've been true to the integrity of my musical vision and that I've brought something lovely into the world.

MR: Kurt, you cover “Come Fly With Me,” a Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen song.

KE: It turns out Jimmy Van Heusen was a song-plugger when he was serving his apprenticeship in The Brill building for almost twenty years before he moved out to Lost Angeles. There are all kinds of connections and webs of connections.

MR: What are some reflections as far as The Brill Building?

KE: I think it's easy to romanticize a building full of musically-inspired professionals and professional wannabes who exist to write hit songs and great music if at all possible. A lot of these people had really tiny paper thin walls in really tiny offices with just enough room for a Spinnet piano and a little writing desk, and they could hear each other working it out. They could steal from each other, learn from each other, be awestruck by one another, and support one another and educate one another and then go out drinking afterwards and celebrate all of their mutual successes. If anything, it reminds me a little bit of the kind of conservatory or music school atmosphere that you'll find young people have these days where they hear each other in practice rooms and be gobsmacked by one another's talents and just try to keep up. At the end of the day, they come out of forming bands together and touring together and impressing and gobsmacking each other all the way to some kind of career in music.

MR: So what got you into singing?

KE: I was singing from an early age. My father was a church musician and he was leading the choirs and I was in the choirs even before I recognized that I was in a choir. I was just having a beautiful experience singing music. Whenever I would try to pick up an instrument, I really couldn't get that much of a sound out of it and I could always get a sound out of my voice. Most of my friends were in choirs and doing straight music. With my voice, it developed over quite a long period time, and then I got hooked on jazz and it was just a very natural fit. Obviously, there were twists and turns and I didn't really think of myself as a professional jazz musician, even in possibility, until that possibility was really upon me and I was already doing the job. But I'm happy that it's worked out the way that it has, and sometimes, I feel that it plays to a kind of peculiar set of circumstances, skills and talents that I've been able to develop over the years and some intuitive gifts that have been given to me. I know that I would want to be juxtaposing creatively pieces of poetry and works of literature and things that I read in the paper with some form of music in any event. It just happens that jazz is so ultimately flexible and that the life of a jazz singer specifically affords so many different creative outlets and ways of communicating with an audience. One can read a poem over music, one can improvise some form of a lyric with music, one can improvise some form of a lyric with music, one can improvise a melodic line, one can write a vocalese lyric over somebody else's great horn solo and learn to sing that and present that to people. One can sing a beautiful ballad if one has the technique and the skill. For me, I'm always trying to challenge myself and I get bored very easily and so there's always another kind of an outlet that I can throw at an audience, not to mention the magnificent talents and skills of the musicians who I'm fortunate to have surrounding me on a given night.

MR: Let's namecheck the musicians on this album.

KE: The musicians on this album tend to be cats that I've been playing with for some time. Laurence Hobgood, my great and esteemed collaborative colleague, is playing piano and B-3 and Rhodes piano and he and I got the lion's share of the arrangements together once I had picked out the compositions I was going to do. It's great to have his talents involved in the mix yet again. We're a great team together, I think, creatively. We're great friends and I'm very fortunate to have somebody of his caliber on my team. John McLean is the great guitarist that you hear on the opening cut and his sound is very unheralded in the world. He's mostly spent time in the Chicago area. He was with Patricia Barber for several years, but I'm very, very happy and fortunate to have him on the team with me now, giving his sounds to another signature occasion. The newest member of our team on this record is Kendrick Scott who's playing drums with us, and he really invented any number of grooves and situations for this recording that really are helping to give it its distinctive sound. He's just rocking it so hard that it really suits the concept.

MR: Yeah, and I have to tell you, I'm impressed that the album was recorded like instantly in May. “May 3rd through 5th,” it reads.

KE: [laughs] I had to! There was a deadline with a bunch of touring dates coming up.

MR: I only bring that up because that's a hard thing to do.

KE: We didn't have a whole lot of time, and we had to get a whole lot of music made. Again, it's really thanks, in large measure, to the musicians that were on the record. We had just a handful of rehearsals together, and we just went straight into the studio and knocked the stuff out.

MR: Yeah. You did eleven songs on this project, but I know there are a couple of songs that are in the can, right?

KE: We've always got a couple of more things that are out there, and it's my privilege to be able to have a couple more than we need so I can choose the best possible cuts that are going to go out on any given recording.

MR: And, of course, that makes for a great rarities package someday.

KE: Uh, or Brill Take Two.

MR: Brill Take Two, which I would love, actually. In my head I've romanticized The Brill Building my whole life. When I was working with a young musical act, I took a series of pictures of the building to inspire him with its musical history and significance. Granted, I'm not old enough to have experienced it at the time, but to me, The Brill Building represents the beginnings and the essence of pop music's getting supersized.

KE: Yeah, well that's true! It was really the first time in history that a youth market developed, a youth market with spending capitol of its own and a certain level of independence that really no other generation had had before, coupled with the ease of the technology–everybody getting their own little transistor radios and radios in cars and then having cars in which to listen to music and drive around. I mean, the whole culture was changing that way, and I'll say this. There was an interesting juxtaposition that came about that I was not aware of that Neil Tesser pointed out to me when he was writing the liner notes for this record, and he came upon the fact that “Come Fly With Me” was written the same year as “Heartbreak Hotel.” Talk about the culture changing even as the music is being written and the music being written for a culture that's changing. I think that's really indicative of the kind of thing that we're talking about.

MR: In a lot of ways, I wish I was older and had really lived it personally, been part of The Brill Building experience myself. Hey Kurt, as far as your baritone voice, it's said to be four octaves. Is that true, sir?

KE: Yeah, more or less. Four and change.

MR: Four…and change. Nice.

KE: You know, I've been working on this for a while, and I'm extremely fortunate to have been given a voice that's flexible and that does, by and large, what I ask it to do, and I really think it's a thrill to have a lifetime in music and to be able to sing.

MR: Do you mentor or give voice lessons?

KE: Well, I do give individual lessons. I don't really have time for mentoring as such because I'm doing about two hundred nights a year on the road and that makes it pretty hard. When I come home, I pretty much need to be with my family and kind of sleep it off a little bit.

MR: Okay, you don't have time to mentor, but maybe perhaps you could give a little advice for new artists?

KE: Well, really, the only advice is for up-and-coming artists to give everything that they can to the music, to love it with their actions as much as they do with their mouth, and by that, I mean really get in there and wrestle with it and study it and really learn the history and really develop your own sound by being self-disciplined. Ultimately, one needs to at least try to be smarter and more disciplined and more dedicated and work longer hours and sacrifice more than whoever it is you're up against for the job.

MR: Let's talk about your growth between your last album, The Gate, and this project. Did you notice anything?

KE: Oh man, I just did a whole bunch of dates on the road and gave it all I could. I'm not sure that we would have been ready to do this project without Don Was, without having worked with Don on The Gate. We wouldn't have been ready to make this record without him had we not made one with him. That's the best way to say it. He really did give us a lot of courage and support that really lingers in my mind. The support that he gave me in the face of any concerns that anybody else might have had is something that I'm going to try to really value and maintain in my own mind, regardless of the specifics of the project that I'm working on.

MR: Kurt, I will continue to romanticize what that building represents probably for the rest of my life, and thank you for this new project that expands the concept. Oh, and Brill Take Two? Bring it!

KE: Great. That's very nice to hear and I'm glad that you're enthusiastic about what we did.

MR: I wish you all the best, and thank you so much for giving us your time, Kurt.

KE: That's great. I appreciate it. Thanks so much.