Kurt Elling, Grammy-winning vocal great, eager to swing and lift spirits
Grammy Award-winning singer Kurt Elling is ready to take a break from the constant turmoil enveloping our polarized nation — and he’s confident music fans are ready to do the same, if only for a night. Accordingly, his Saturday night “A Century of Heroes” concert, which opens the San Diego Symphony’s 2019/2020 Jazz at the Jacobs series, will focus firmly on classics by such timeless American singers as Louis Armstrong, Jon Hendricks, Nancy Wilson, Shirley Horn and Frank Sinatra.
“It’s a moment for me and my audience to take a break from all the heavy stuff going on and to remember just how much fun it is to swing,” said Elling, who ranks as one of the most versatile and acclaimed vocalists of his generation. His past collaborators range from opera superstar Renée Fleming and blues giant Buddy Guy to sax great Von Freeman and such diverse groups as Yellowjackets and Manhattan Transfer.
“It’s also an opportunity for me to point everyone’s attention back to my predecessors, those great male and female singers who have made my work possible,” Elling, 52, continued, speaking from a concert tour stop in his native Chicago. “That includes Joe Williams and Billy Eckstine, who are being forgotten in this incredible rush of forward motion we have today.”
Elling and his ace band’s San Diego repertoire will include such gems as the Count Basie/Jimmy Rushing classic “Goin’ to Chicago,” Eddie Jefferson and Arthur Johnson’s oh-so-sly “Benny’s From Heaven” (which used to be a staple in concerts by the late San Diego jazz sax legend James Moody), and Buddy Johnson’s poignant “Save Your Love for Me,” which has been recorded by everyone from Nancy Wilson and Etta Jones to Lou Rawls and Boz Scaggs.
The selections are designed to appeal equally to devoted fans and casual listeners who know little, or nothing, about jazz.
“We’ll roll through a bunch of tunes. I’ll say the names of some singers and tell you a little about why I love them. But this is not a lecture series,” he stressed. “There will be great musicians onstage, and we’ll have a fun, swinging night.”
Elling will also perform the Nat “King” Cole gem “Nature Boy,” which he simultaneously pays homage to and extends into new musical territory. That dual ability to salute and re-invent on the spot has earned the veteran singer and former furniture moving-crew worker praise from fellow musicians and critics alike.
“Kurt’s voice has way more colors to it than the normal non-classical singer. He does that thing Billie Holiday did, where she could change the colors in her voice to change the emotional content,” saxophonist and former “Tonight Show” musical director Branford Marsalis noted in a 2017 Union-Tribune interview. “A lot of jazz singers, even the famous ones, have the same approach to every song. Kurt has great musical instincts, so he can stretch with us while still maintaining the integrity of the songs.”
Asked to respond, Elling offered a carefully considered answer.
“Maybe it’s more a matter of the breadth of expression, rather than the depth of expression,” he said. “Because, certainly, in the case of a song Billie Holiday did that I may have experimented with, her depth of expression would not be something I could match. But that’s a different thing from the palette of emotions and colors inherent and possible in any given song.
“I feel it’s not only a matter of coloring the sound of the voice and its timbre that I can play with in jazz, but even the notes. Because there’s no inviolate libretto for the melody — like there is in opera — in order to get that emotional content to manifest, which is my job.
“The level of difficulty for me is a matter of musicianship as a jazz singer. How much homework have I done to lead me to this night and this occasion? How well am I listening to my collaborators onstage? And how good am I, as a singer, at broadcasting the emotion the song is asking for, which I am trying to convey with as many colors and as much respect as I can?”
A longtime social activist, Elling was just one credit short of earning his graduate degree from Chicago Divinity School in early 1992 when he left to devote himself to singing jazz full time.
His website includes a section called “Take Action,” in which he endorses “some organizations that I believe are standing up for humanity. You might not agree with all my choices, but I’ll bet there is one on the list you’d like.” That list includes the Southern Poverty Law Center, Doctors Without Borders, Mercy Corps and the National Resources Defense Council.
“It’s certainly a patriotic duty for all of us who care about our nation to give everything we can,” said Elling, a married father of two. “So I will be involved.”