Kurt Elling: A fresh take on the world of jazz

Is there a better singer at work today than jazz vocalist Kurt Elling? With his elastic baritone voice and distinctive soul patch – that fine strip of beatnik hair beneath his lower lip – there’s certainly no one quite like the Chicagoan hipster.
Elling, who is about to release a new album and embark on a British tour, is a serious student of jazz. His erudition is unsurprising given that he was heading towards an academic career when he really discovered music.

“I was reading philosophy and thought I might be a professor or some such thing,” he says.

When a demo tape then earned him a contract with Blue Note in the mid-1990s, there was no going back.

“It’s much more my vocation to explore such ideas of meaning and value as a writer of lyrics and as a singer and artist,” Elling says of his change of direction. Grammys have garlanded most of his projects since.

The words “male jazz singer” are indissolubly associated in the popular imagination with Frank Sinatra.

Not that the emotional and intellectual ambition of Elling’s work has much in common with Ol’ Blue Eyes’s legacy.

Indeed, Elling’s main musical antecedents are mid-century vocalese mavericks such as Jon Hendricks (aka the “James Joyce of Jive”) and Mark Murphy.

However, one thing he shares with all the giants of jazz, whether trad or avant-garde, is a sense of style.

“You know, the great jazz and jazz-influenced singers carry themselves with a certain panache and a certain elegance and, for lack of a better word, self-confidence,” says Elling, whose charisma makes him a magnetic stage performer.

His new album, The Gate, was recorded with renowned producer Don Was at the helm and sees Elling bringing his unique skills to a more mainstream pop and soul repertoire.

The process by which he selects his material is highly intuitive. “Things percolate in your mind over time,” says Elling.

“You could say the muse whispers in your ear.”

Among the songs to receive revelatory reworkings here are The Beatles’ Norwegian Wood and Golden Lady by Stevie Wonder (“The architecture of what he writes is so visible and the melodies have so much joy and humanity in them,” says Elling).

The album title holds personal symbolism for the singer.

“Every record is a gate of a certain kind for me,” he explains.

“It’s something that one steps through into the next moment of life, the next breath, the next experience, the next possibility.”

Like his musical heroes, Elling is a master of vocalese – “a speciality subset of lyric writing in which the lyricist transcribes a recording of an instrumental solo and proceeds to write a lyric over the contours of that solo,” as Elling describes it.

There’s a fine example on the new album.

Samurai Cowboy is a song about “acknowledging that the brain is an extraordinary warehouse of memory and that memories surface at unusual moments and combine with new ideas to form brave and sometimes silly ideas about things.”

Its vocalese lyric – which begins with the singer going out for a jog and experiencing “a feeling like in my brain there lives an alien,” “a little man in a space capsule riding round in a balloon deep inside my head,” which leads Elling to the conclusion that “Descartes was right” – was shaped around a solo by the great jazz guitarist John Scofield.

The beauty of the discipline, as Elling explains, is “something that began in instrumental improvisation becomes more like a kind of jazz aria.”

Vocalese is musical recycling at its most elegant and creative.

Elling’s apartment in Chicago used to belong to Barack and Michelle Obama – “before they moved to their current house,” he offers wryly.

Though he has a family, Elling doesn’t get to sleep there very often. “I spend upwards of 200 nights a year on the road,” he says.

It seems logical that the city after dark – the touring musician’s natural habitat – should be one of Elling’s great themes as an artist.

It provides the setting for his remarkable dusk-to-dawn song cycle Nightmoves (2007) and is the subject of an extraordinary, highly evocative spoken-word segment (“night life… that gorgeous velvet mantle”) on the final track on The Gate, Nighttown, Lady Bright.

Nearly 20 years of touring have certainly honed Elling’s craft as a performer. “I’ve learned how to be a professional,” he says.

“Audiences have taught me how to sing better and entertain better.

“I have enough experience now that I’m just about ready to start singing.”