Jazz’s Elling scats through genres

You know it’s a jazz musician talking when he says, sure, he’ll be doing selections from his new CD on this promotional tour — but the CD tracks will just serve as suggestions for the live gig.
“Every night we’re trying to find something new in the music. That’s what jazz is really about,” says star vocalist Kurt Elling, who visits the Ark in Ann Arbor on Tuesday, the same day Concord Jazz plans to release his album “The Gate.”

The new disc features Elling doing music by artists as disparate as Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, Miles Davis and the Beatles.

Elling shrugs off the idea that the rock-soul sounds of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” or Wonder’s “Golden Lady” present any special challenge to a singer perhaps more closely associated with Hancock (“Come Running to Me”) or Davis (“Blue in Green”).

“The biggest challenge,” he says, “is to play up to the level of the musicians I’ve hired — my regular and trustworthy collaborator Laurence Hobgood (piano), John Patitucci (bass) and Kobie Watkins (drums). I had them in mind when I was working on the material. I knew they would be able to invent a new space for us, and they exceeded my expectations. And it’s always a joy to work with (guitarist) John McLean. He provides a heavy signature element. He creates an atmosphere even when he isn’t soloing.”

But the magic ultimately centers on Elling, whose incredible vocal range, agility and savvy can turn even familiar tunes into heady musical adventures. Since the Chicago native began recording in the mid-1990s, he has received nine Grammy nominations; he won Best Vocal Jazz Album for “Dedicated to You” in 2009.

While Elling’s prodigious scatting often draws comparison with the art of trumpet players and saxophonists, he says vocalists and instrumentals have always learned from and emulated one another.

“Sax players famously pay attention to the way great singers phrase and breathe,” he says. “The improv habits of a good jazz singer are the same habits as a good instrumentalist. You try to think compositionally when you’re improvising. It isn’t haphazard. You are trying to create a melody that has emotional direction, its own architecture. You want to make a coherent musical statement.”

The recording studio has helped to bring Elling international fame, but live performance affords the luxury of instant communication and the inspiration of feedback.

“In the studio you have a more perfect acoustic environment,” he says. “You can hear everything you need to hear — piano, bass, yourself — perfectly in your headphones. But you have to imagine an audience. Things are more relaxed without an audience, more focused.

“But playing in front of an audience, the experience is visceral. Your listeners become your collaborators. They both offer advantages. I wouldn’t want to give up either one.”