Kurt Elling: Man in the Air

Let’s come right out and say it: Kurt Elling is the most influential jazz vocalist of our time. Mercurial but ever-lyrical, a serenader as well as a searcher, he represents the higher instincts and aspirations of a field crowded with every sort of throwback. At 42, he’s a perennial poll winner and consummate insider, occupying a role that would have seemed far-fetched when he made his first album 15 years ago. But the state of jazz singing will be different in the coming decade than it was when he arrived, and I dare say it will be better.
In no small part, that’s because of the ambitious standard he has set. “Among my jazz students, he’s the contemporary singer that I hear cited the most as an influence,” says David Thorne Scott, an associate professor in the voice department at the Berklee College of Music. “I always expect it from my guys, but it’s the women too.” Similar testimony comes from Dominique Eade, an accomplished jazz singer and revered faculty member at the New England Conservatory. “Technically he’s so impressive,” she says, “and I think students can feel the weight of musicianship behind what he does, in his transcription and his writing of lyrics to other people’s solos.” With a chuckle, she adds, “It’s sometimes hard for me to remember this, but I’m teaching kids who don’t know Mark Murphy and don’t know Eddie Jefferson, and may not know Annie Ross. There’s a direction that those people pointed toward that nobody really followed through on. It almost skipped a generation. Kurt took that idea and carried it forward.”

Elling, a product of Chicago, had his basic agenda in place from the start. Close Your Eyes, his Blue Note debut, opens with the title track, one of two durable standards by Bernice Petkere. A study in smoldering crescendo, it begins as a dreamy reverie, shifts to assertive swing and crests with an expressionistic scat chorus. The following tune, “Dolores Dream,” presents Elling’s vocalese take on a Wayne Shorter composition, with clever use of onomatopoeia (“‘Bronk!’ went a taxicab outside”) and shrewd manipulation of timbre. Next comes “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men,” another standard, and “(Hide the) Salomé,” an original with implications both literary and faintly lascivious. And so it goes, on an album that invokes poet Rainer Maria Rilke alongside jazzmen like Herbie Hancock. Elling, supported throughout by his steadfast musical partner, pianist Laurence Hobgood, exudes spectacular confidence and élan.

The ensuing years would find him both expanding and refining his portfolio, with two superb follow-up albums, The Messenger (1997) and This Time It’s Love (1998), and a worthwhile succession of others, both on Blue Note and Concord, his current label home. Along the way his core assets as a singer—intelligent phrasing, clear but pliable intonation, impeccable breath and pitch control—commingled freely with his literary and conceptual inclinations. His most recent release, Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman, showcases his skills as a balladeer, even if it also confirms that his temperament skews more Coltrane than Hartman. He’ll be recording his next studio album in December; the veteran pop producer Don Was will be involved.

I should note that Elling, who has lately been residing with his wife and daughter in Brooklyn, does have his share of detractors. My own reservations have revolved around various kinds of cerebral or sentimental excess. Sometimes it feels like each of Elling’s brilliant literary turns—like the role he fills so memorably in Leaves of Grass, a multimedia work by pianist Fred Hersch—has a corresponding moment of bathos or pretension. Nightmoves, his 2007 Concord debut, still strikes me as an unctuous flop, despite his vocalese response to a Dexter Gordon recording of “Body and Soul.” Still, it’s fascinating to learn that the Elling track most aspiring vocalists at Berklee want to transcribe is “In the Winelight,” a slow jam from the 2003 album Man in the Air. “The fact that he goes outside of your spang-a-lang swing rhythm is something they can tap into,” says Scott, suggesting that R&B inflection also plays a role in that equation.

Given that Elling has prominently toured with Jon Hendricks and Mark Murphy, the two jazz-vocal masters who form the backbone of his style, it would seem that he still considers himself more of a pupil than a mentor. But I would venture to say he recognizes his own impact as a standard-bearer, which has been inexorably on the rise. Consider José James, a dashing young jazz singer with a pronounced footing in R&B, who has cited Elling and Cassandra Wilson as early influences. Among the signature moves in James’ fledgling repertoire is a spin on “Resolution,” from John Coltrane’s hallowed suite A Love Supreme. (Elling got there first, brilliantly. Find the studio result on Man in the Air, or a superior live track at kurtelling.com.)

Even more telling is the example of Sachal Vasandani, a prepossessing recent arrival whose sophomore album, We Move (Mack Avenue), is among this year’s best vocal releases. On it he contributes several of his own tunes, pays homage to Hendricks and Murphy, and interacts sure-footedly with a dynamic working band. His take on the standard “Don’t Worry About Me” involves a lilting “Poinciana” groove, over which he phrases in long arcs; the whole package suggests Elling on “My Foolish Heart” a decade ago. And one of the originals, a near-bossa called “Royal Eyes,” incorporates a distinctly Elling-esque reading, complete with subtly multitracked background harmonies.

Which is not to say that Vasandani sounds just like Elling—that would be beside the point, as both singers would surely agree. Eade sheds the best light on this facet of the elder’s influence. “One thing I have not encountered in my teaching,” she says, “is students who are slavishly imitative of Kurt. And I think in a way that’s his best gift. There’s so much to admire, but people use it as an inroad to something musical, rather than just a pose.”