Kurt Elling: Divine Jazz

Kurt Elling was one credit shy of graduating from the University of Chicago Divinity School when he dropped everything to do what he loved.
Now a renowned jazz vocalist, Elling had sung in choirs all through childhood. And he’d always had an affinity for jazz.

“I remember some specific early times where it was a thrilling experience, something that opened a door to possibilities, like individual virtuosity and just a lot of emotional impact,” Elling said of the form during a recent phone interview.

While in grad school, he moved furniture and bartended for income. But it was when Elling began moonlighting in Chicago clubs, specifically with a weekly gig at the Green Mill Jazz Club, that he first began to envision a career in music.

“I had been singing all my life and singing jazz for a number of years before I even considered the possibility I could make a vocation out of it,” he said.

It was at the Green Mill where Elling met pianist Laurence Hobgood, who has gone on to be his collaborator on eight studio albums, including the newly-released The Gate.

“None of the projects I’ve been engaged in would sound the way that they do and with the level of quality that they have without Laurence being there as a collaborator and an arranger, and sort of helping out with quality control,” Elling said of his associate.

It isn’t just Elling’s dexterous vocal range (a baritone spanning four octaves) that’s earned him worldwide acclaim. It’s also his emotional command of a song, detached and introspective one moment, barnstorming the next. He’s also a disciple of vocalese, a style of jazz singing where lyrics are written for an existing piece of instrumental music. Elling began to sing vocalese after hearing a master of the technique, Jon Hendricks.

“I had a number of solos in mind that I wanted to sing, I just didn’t know that one could do such a thing,” he said.

Lyrical inspiration can come from a variety of elements.

“Sometimes the music itself is the chief motivator,” Elling said. “An emotional resonance I feel in what the musician played can lead to a very clear idea. Sometimes I know the music well enough and I have a feeling for it, but I’ll adapt a piece of poetry to the contours of the jazz solo. Sometimes it’ll be something that echoes, paraphrases and otherwise amplifies the original lyric for a song in a way that extends it and tells a more detailed or sort of left-handed story than the original lyric had room for.”

On The Gate, Elling has put his stamp on some popular standards, including Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out” and “Norwegian Wood” by The Beatles. It was produced by Don Was, who’s worked with the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, among many others. He reached out to Elling a couple years ago when he was in the midst of a reunion tour with Was Not Was. They met up on a Chicago tour stop, where Elling was living at the time, and a friendship developed.

“It was a natural thing to reach out and find out if he could squeeze me into his schedule, given the kind of record I wanted to make and given his enthusiasm for what I was already about,” Elling said.

For many of the tracks on The Gate, Elling and Hobgood worked up music charts that were pretty specific. But the first song, King Crimson’s “Matte Kudasi,” had a different feel and ultimately set the tone for the rest of the project.

“I really just invited the rhythm section to create something that captured and transmitted the emotional temperature that I had described to them,” Elling said.

He told them he didn’t want to tell them what to play, he just wanted to hear what they had in mind.

“(Bassist) John Patitucci kind of looked at the chart, thought about it for a minute and said ‘OK, let’s roll this.’ Then he just started to play,” Elling said. “With that song, it was only really one or two takes and it was done.”

Despite giving these pop and rock songs the smooth treatment, Elling doesn’t comb other styles in search of examples ripe for his interpretation. Jazz is still his favorite form to listen to as well as perform.

“Certain elements of other genres percolate and stay with you,” Elling said. “Mostly I just try to pay attention to music.”

It could be the start to another great year. In 2010 he won his first Grammy for the 2009 release, Dedicated to You, after being nominated eight previous times. Elling admits it was a relief (“It’s kind of like taking the Band-Aid off. You’re just happy to finally be on the other side of that”) but isn’t letting it go to his head.

“It’s ups and downs,” he said of everything. “You just try to hold on tight and play the best music you can.”