Kurt Elling: Jazz Wunderkind

How do you become a jazz wunderkind at 44 when you didn't really even discover jazz until you were 22? Ask jazz vocal virtuoso and Grammy-Award winner, Kurt Elling. How did he manage that? He would probably say he has no idea. He simply followed his path, circuitous as it may have been. That path radically changed courses some 22 years ago, transitioning from Divinity School to dive bars, and he's been singing jazz ever since.
Right out of the box, Elling, a baritone with a 4-octave range, combining technical mastery with great emotional depth, created a minor sensation, getting his first recording, “Close Your Eyes” (1995), released on the Blue Note label, with five more to follow, before switching to the Concord label with “Nightmoves” (2007).

He has since recorded three more albums on the Concord label, including his latest recording project, released this past September, entitled: “1619 Broadway-The Brill Building Project.” Not only has he been nominated for 10 consecutive Grammy Awards, which is in and of itself a record, he also eventually won the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album for his 2009 recording “Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman.”

The Washington Post said, “Since the mid-1990s, no singer in jazz has been as daring, dynamic or interesting as Kurt Elling. With his soaring vocal flights, his edgy lyrics and sense of being on a musical mission, he has come to embody the creative spirit in jazz.”

Tribute to NYC

Through his virtuosity, he has built up a career that includes touring nationally and internationally, in addition to regular gigs in New York City, where this native Chicagoan has made his home since 2008. In fact, “1619 Broadway” is his personal tribute to his adopted home of New York City, celebrating the music crafted and created in the offices of the famed Brill Building, whose paper thin walls led scores of songwriters from the 1930s to the 1970s to become influenced by one another as they developed what eventually became known as the Brill Sound. Elling and his quartet will bring that Brill Sound, as well as an eclectic program of material from past and future recordings, first to Boston Scullers Jazz Club for four shows Oct. 25-26, 2012, followed by at two shows at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC on Oct 27, 2012.

Elling spoke to EDGE about standing on the shoulders of jazz greats, his love of vocalese and improvisation, and his complete surprise that he still manages to fill jazz rooms night after night.

“That I have a career at all is a pretty surprising thing even now,” confesses Elling. “I didn't grow up expecting to be a musician of any kind let alone a jazz musician. The fact that I tour 200 nights a year, and got some people to pay attention when I sing, is a surprise to me right there. The concerts, the collaboration, the joy of performing, the pure human communication through sound and music, these are an amazement to me. It is a great blessing that I have this life.”

Born and raised in Chicago, the son of a Lutheran Church kappelmeister, Elling was groomed from an early age for a career in religion. As a child, being classically trained, he sang mostly with church choirs, then adding violin, piano, French horn, and drums to his musical prowess. Though he recalls growing up watching Tony Bennett on television, and dreamt of singing with a big band, he was more prone to singing counterpoint from J.S Bach motets in those years. Studying religion in college, he planned to work for the World Council of Churches.

Improvisation the key

But at graduate school in the University of Chicago Divinity School, he heard the strains of Dave Brubeck and Ella Fitzgerald, and that changed everything. He began taking jazz gigs on weekends, and discovered his aptitude for jazz vocals and sheer love of improvisation as an artistic expression. In a 2000 interview with Steve James for Independent Online, Elling recalled, “By day I was reading Kant and Schleiermacher, trying to get a handle on that, and at night I was sitting-in in clubs, and, of course, you can't do both and be effective. Eventually Saturday night won out over Sunday morning.”

In fact, it is improvisation that Elling insists must be a part of any jazz expression. “Jazz is defined by Improvisation, risk taking, the individualization of the artist on stage in collaboration with the other musicians and inclusive of the audience on a given night,” describes Elling. “Improvisation at its best answers the same questions that any great composition asks: high, low, fast, slow, what emotional theme are we dealing with and how we make that clear through sound, with and without lyrics. There is a lot of musical mastery in jazz work that is not involved in the work of many other genres that are more about creative reiteration than improvisation.”

For singers, that often means introducing scatting into their vocal work, found in delicious abundance in the work of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Betty Carter, Mel Torme, and Mark Murphy, the latter with whom Elling is often compared. Elling believes, however, that a jazz singer doesn't have to scat, as long as he incorporates the rhythmic, harmonic and melodic freedom that comes with improvisation, a long held technique among jazz musicians.

Discovered vocalese

Still Elling is a scatting ace, and his work swells with complex scatting cadenzas that are so similar in technique to instrumental solos that some critics have described Elling's voice as yet another instrument in the band.

But one of the more distinctive elements of Elling's style is his subtle mastery of vocalese, a genre of jazz singing where words are laid down onto pre-existing composed or improvised all-instrumental melodies. Though conventionally believed to originate in the early 1950s with the work of Eddie Jefferson, vocalese became popularized by the renowned jazz vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross in the late 1950s, and further developed by Al Jarreau, Mark Murphy, The New York Voices, and Manhattan Transfer.

Elling was drawn to vocalese by its shifting, morphing and blending of music and lyrics in a completely new way. “It's a whole new world for lyricists,” proclaims Elling, who has compiled two books of his own original vocalese lyrics. “It's not an AABA form anymore, but patterns that were improvised by master instrumentalists, melodies made up on the spot, one that no human ear has ever heard before. You put that through a vocal process, like a human being singing, and the melody gets played melodically, harmonically, rhythmically; you are taking the listener forward into new territory. The lyrics have a new way of rhyming because the patterns of modern jazz have new ideas, so the lyric must rhyme with the new rhythm of those melodies, and it presents a new challenge, that is extremely difficult but rewarding.” Don't try this at home, folks, he is a trained professional.

The Brill Sound

In fact, he trained himself listening to the trumpet solos of a Horace Silver recording and discovering those same riffs in the vocalese work of Jon Hendricks, with whom Elling has later collaborated. “I figured out that Jon Hendricks and Eddie Jefferson were not only singing like horns, but they were singing the horn lines!” marvels Elling. “I started doing vocalese pretty much right on the heels of that. I had tried to sing several of the horn solos that I heard, but naively, I didn't realize it was part of the jazz tradition already. Then listening to more recordings I came upon the vocalese world and that was a big big moment for me.”

Though his work has been dominated by American jazz standards, such as “My Foolish Heart,” “Lush Life,” the Latin sounds of Antonio Carlos Jobim, as well as the occasional pop sounds of the Beatles, and Stevie Wonder, his latest recording “1619 Broadway,” is a real departure for him, eschewing even the American Songbook material that came out of the Brill Building in the 1930s and 1940s. Instead it focuses on the more distinctive Brill Sound developed in the three decades following by such songwriters as Leiber and Stoller (“Stand By Me”), Goffin and King (“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”), Mann and Weil (“You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling”) and Bacharach and David (“Walk On By”), still applying his trademark style to these pop classics.

In the Scullers gig, however, his program will go much further. Along with longtime collaborators, pianist Laurence Hobgood, bassist Clark Sommers, guitarist John McLean and drummer Kendrick Scott, Elling plans to mix it up. “We've always got new stuff. I find it would be boring and redundant and antithetical to the jazz project simply to play the record,” remarks Elling. “So I tend to spread things out over the night, and have more solos, longer solos, or something that didn't make it onto the CD that we would like to do.”

Though Elling has accomplished nearly everything he has set out to do in his singing career, in his sincere humble way, he is not afraid to credit those from whom he has learned, such as singers Hendricks, Jefferson, Joe Williams, Betty Carter, Andy Bey, and Anita O'Day, as well as instrumentalists John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Louis Armstrong.

“First of all, it is definitely true that we stand on the shoulders of giants, and as such, we can see further than them because of the passage of time, and we can blend things that they didn't know were possible,” muses Elling. “When you are young you copy and digest, but when you mature, you evolve and if you do you arrive at a place informed by the past but belongs to you.”