Kurt Elling: Master improviser

There’s a lot more to vocal jazz improvisation than just making it up on the spot, as the master of the form, Kurt Elling, explains.
‘Sometimes people have this notion that improvisation is simply intuitive leaping into the unknown,” muses Kurt Elling, whom many regard as today’s leading male jazz vocalist, a man known for doing a fair bit of leaping of his own, with a richly mellifluous voice which combines formidable range, control and the ability to grab a song by the scruff of its neck and escort it along engagingly unscheduled byways.

“Certainly,” he concedes, “intuition plays a heavy role, but one also hopes that one’s analytical abilities have been utilised to their fullest extent before one gets onstage, so one makes informed decisions and is creating melody and not just a random series of notes.”

Scottish audiences will be guaranteed rather more than a random series of notes when the 43-year-old Elling takes the stage in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Stirling this weekend for what promises to be a hugely rewarding collaboration with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, led by saxophonist Tommy Smith, before both singer and SNJO head south to London’s Barbican, for a Monday gig with jazz accordionist Richard Galliano.

Elling, whose memorable last Scottish visit was also in large ensemble company, that of the Swedish Norrbotten Big Band, is at equally at home interpreting American songbook classics, scatting spectacularly or embarking on intriguing “vocalese” exercises, boldly writing his own lyrics to some of jazz’s most hallowed instrumental moments, such as Resolution from John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.

The Chicago-born, New York-based singer comes to Scotland following a lengthy run at the Big Apple’s Birdland, launching his latest album, The Gate (Concord Records), his first release since last year’s Grammy-winning Dedicated To You.

Produced by Don Was, a name more associated with the rock world but who demonstrates a clear affinity with Elling’s work, the new album is a gleefully genre-tweaking and beautifully arranged excursion, ranging from an old King Crimson number, through The Beatles and Stevie Wonder to Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock classics. There are memorable moments: in Crimson’s Matte Kudasai, Elling’s voice rises effortlessly against the sigh of John McLean’s guitar with the languor of a Gauguin canvas; impressionist elements, too, in the beguiling piano shimmer from Elling’s long-time accompanist and arranger Laurence Hobgood in the Miles Davis classic Blue In Green, as Elling ecstatically teases out Al Jarreau’s lyrics.

There can’t be too many jazz singer-lyricists who’ll give Descartes a name-check, as Elling does during the zany existential bopping of the album’s Samurai Cowboy, a metaphysical echo, perhaps, of his earlier incarnation as a philosophy student, during which he did a year at Edinburgh University, absorbing, in his words, “a variety of things … some Scottish history, some philosophy, some drinking and some going to music and basically being a student”.

Whatever philosophy informs his music, it’s basically life-affirming, he suggests, wrapping up “the jazz tradition, the potential the music carries to reinforce a better feeling about being alive, the way it takes you out of yourself … and also that it swings really hard.”

And things should indeed swing, with a vengeance, when he joins Smith and the SNJO, who have been steadily consolidating their reputation as a jazz force to be reckoned with.

Shifting into such muscular company from the limited and carefully chosen instrumental palette of The Gate poses different challenges.

“In a way there’s a lot less pressure,” he says, “because a big band carries so much power so effortlessly that, if anything, it’s a bit of a challenge to pull it back sometimes. With a smaller setting you have a lot more freedom and flexibility within a given moment, but not necessarily the velocity you have with a big band.”