Kurt Elling: a jazz singer with a literary, collaborative bent

Before he won last year’s jazz vocal album Grammy Award for “Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman,” each of Elling’s six previous albums had earned a nomination in that category. Rather than feeling like jazz’s Susan Lucci, the Manhattan-based baritone took it in stride, though he admits feeling relieved that he didn’t go home empty-handed once again.
“It was a sweet and in some ways bittersweet victory,” said Elling, who opens a three-night run at Catalina on Wednesday. “It’s a lovely thing to have people in any circumstance appreciate your work. But I couldn’t be upset in the past. When Shirley Horn and Nancy Wilson win, you can’t be upset.”

Over the past 15 years, a good deal of Elling’s best work hasn’t even come under Recording Academy scrutiny. A master of collaboration with a literary bent, he’s worked with Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater on a variety of shows, including one based on Allen Ginsberg’s poetry and another exploring the artistic currents of L.A., Chicago and New York. More recently, Elling has been the creative catalyst behind several projects by jazz giants looking to stretch into new compositional territory.

Prodigious Los Angeles bassist-composer John Clayton worked closely with Elling on his ambitious suite “Red Man-Black Man,” which premiered at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 2006. The same year Dave Brubeck featured Elling in his Monterey Jazz Festival commission “Cannery Row Suite,” a jazz opera based on Steinbeck’s great novel. Pianist Fred Hersch credits Elling’s voice as a muse for his project setting the verse of Walt Whitman to music, a chamber jazz suite documented on 2005’s “Leave of Grass” (Palmetto).

“I pretty much had Kurt Elling in mind from the very beginning,” Hersch told me before “Leaves” premiered in San Francisco. “I knew he’s a poetry fanatic, an accomplished lyricist and a smart guy. When you’re singing lines like ‘I celebrate myself’ and ‘I sing myself,’ you can’t mess around with that. You have to own it, and Kurt has a great deal of presence as a performer.”

To read Andrew Gilbert’s full Arts & Books profile of Elling, click here.