Kurt Elling happy singing what he loves without pressure from mainstream music
The last time Kurt Elling appeared at the University of Northern Colorado/ Greeley Jazz Festival, he was treated like an OutKast.
The high school and college students screamed so loud when he was introduced it scared him. They screamed as if he were Andre 3000 or Big Boi, the rap duo that makes up OutKast, currently the hottest act in music. They screamed as if he were Norah Jones, the sultry pianist on the jazz label Blue Note, currently the other hottest act in music.
He still remembers it, though it was two years ago and he has sung in front of hundreds of other crowds since then. He wouldn’t mind having that kind of a reaction everywhere.
“It was quite a bit different than the usual jazz response,” Elling said in a phone interview. “But it certainly wasn’t unpleasant.”
Of course, Elling, 36, will never be as popular at OutKast. Right? Well, probably. But Jones’ success raised many eyebrows. Her records really aren’t jazz, but they have enough jazz influence that Blue Note, which has just about every jazz legend in its catalogue, released them. And though, ultimately, her records are pop, they’re heavily influenced by jazz as well as blues and folk music.
Her success could give someone like Elling hope. They even share the same label. If he only cared.
“I don’t lose a lot of sleep over it,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of success as it is.”
That’s true in the jazz world. All six of his albums have been nominated for a Grammy, and he has loyal fans, even if they don’t number in the tens of millions, as Jones can boast.
There’s really no question where Elling’s heart lies. He’s not likely to produce a pop album. He’s a jazz singer in the purest form. He sings standards, sure, but he also challenges himself and, therefore, his listeners, especially on his latest album, “Man in the Air.” He put lyrics and sings the lines to modern classics such as John Coltrane’s “Resolution” to tunes from Herbie Hancock, Bob Mintzer and Pat Metheny.
“I don’t think my thing is going to be like Norah Jones,” Elling said. “The things she’s playing are so approachable, my thing is whatever my thing is. It needs a little more patience or focus.
“She’s making beautiful music. I make music I believe is gratifying when they’ve heard it five or six times.”
Elling said his audiences seem to get it right away though. They laugh at his stories about hosting rent parties (parties to help pay the rent) and swoon his “jazz-cat” persona, with his suits and his ponytail and his dark glasses, and they scream at his complicated improvisational skills.
“If I knew why that is, why an audience seems to understand the concerts more, I would bottle it,” Elling said.
Elling is one of the more inventive scatters in jazz, a gift he flashes much more in live performances than on records. He learned how to improvise after feeling left out of all that jamming his fellow musicians did on stage.
“From the first time I sat in, I sang the tune, ‘All of Me,’ and then I waited around for a half-hour while they all were blowing,” Elling said. “I felt like I was missing out on 90 percent of the experience.”
Elling experiments, and he’s a cerebral singer, but he’s also put his deep voice and broad range to many accessible moments. He recorded beautiful versions of the popular standards “My Foolish Heart” and “April in Paris,” and his recent album, “Flirting With Twilight,” had all ballads.
“As close as I can come to commercial status was ‘Flirting,’ ” Elling said. “And I was totally satisfied with that record.”
But with “Man in the Air,” he shows he’s not totally comfortable with getting boxed in or recording an album to please the masses. He doesn’t know what his next album will sound like, or what it will feature, but he’s satisfied with the journey and whoever decides to come along for the ride.
“I’m at a crossroads,” Elling said. “I’m still very much looking at it all from a distance. But I think we’ve definitely found our people.”