Kurt Elling … and all that jazz

Yes, jazz singer Kurt Elling is easy on the eye. But forget about all that for now, ladies… The American baritone with a four-octave range is one of the most innovative jazz singers to come along in years.
It's hard to picture him as a young boy singing motets by JS Bach, but that's where his love of singing started. His father was a church musician in the Lutheran tradition and Kurt sang sacred music in choirs throughout his childhood and played a range of musical instruments.

“I was given a feeling of what music can do for the human spirit, to move you to a different place, to lift you up, to help you feel better, to explore how pain feels in a dignified fashion and I feel very fortunate to have had those experiences very early on,” he says.

I spoke to Chicago-born Elling during a particularly busy touring schedule that stops off in Dublin this month. He is doing upwards of 200 gigs on the road this year. He laments the fact that he doesn't get to spend more time in New York where he moved a few years ago with his wife and young daughter, but it's clear to see that he also loves performing and tells me that he was built to sing.

Elling tells the story about getting his big break in jazz with relish. He was walking around Chicago knocking on doors trying to get work. He remembers having a cassette tape and a press kit that included quotes that he had made up himself.

Luckily for the singer, he had a friend who spotted his talent and wanted to help. This generous pal handed Kurt a cheque for $10,000 so that he could walk into a studio and make a good demo tape. It was picked up by Blue Note Records and ended up being his first record garnering a Grammy nomination. He has since been nominated for nine more, winning Best Jazz Vocal Album in 2010.

Elling is serious about what he does and has worked hard to perfect it. He takes risks and is very skilled as a performer of vocalese, the art of writing and performing words over improvised jazz solos. He will take a song like 'Come Fly with Me' that is so associated with Frank Sinatra and totally make it his own.

As we discuss what the qualities of a jazz singer should be, he believes they should truly and deeply have fallen in love with the sound and tradition of jazz.

“They need to have studied the music so that they can at least approach the music with the spirit of improvisation. It doesn't mean they have to scat but that they have the spirit of being in the moment,” he says.

Elling still loves the mix between performing on tour and recording in the studio and points out what one can learn from each experience.

“What you find in live performance is how well you relate to an audience, what you find out in the studio is how you are actually relating to the music itself – you find out what you don't know, you find out what you haven't practised,” he says.

So with all of this touring, what about talking care of his voice? With a wry smile, he says: “I try not to do all of the things that jazz people are reputed to do on a gig day.”

Kurt Elling performs at The National Concert Hall on May 21 with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra as part of its Signature Series.