Kurt Elling on Youth, Critics

This month’s cover story for JazzTimes, re: singer Kurt Elling, has been excerpted online. There’s way more insight behind the paywall, so if you like what you see, please go buy a copy, or swipe one from your neighbor. Meanwhile, I thought I’d expand on just one (major) aspect of the piece here, having to do with his thoughts on artistic maturity and its antipode, callow youth.
Elling is nothing if not a self-reflective artist, and soon after we sat down he was musing on his stature vis-à-vis jazz’s critical establishment. The tide had been turning for him in that regard, especially since the generally acknowledged triumph of his Coltrane-Hartman album, Dedicated to You, in 2009. But what Elling seemed eager to talk about were his detractors, some of whom he felt had formed their opinions early on.*

Here is some of what he said:

Listen to Elling on Youth

I like that Elling transitions from a self-searching answer here to one that involves his students. (He isn’t affiliated with the faculty of any jazz school — incredibly, he’s never been asked — but he sometimes teaches privately at a rented space in Manhattan.) And if you’ve followed his career in real time, you can probably recognize that young striver reaching beyond his grasp. Elling’s stage persona, a distinct blend of show barker and philosopher-poet, has occasionally been a strange potion to quaff. In case you haven’t experienced it for yourself, here’s a taste, with bonus pretension points for the French intro:

I’m kidding about the French, of course — the guy’s in Montréal, de toute évidence — but you get what I’m saying. The choice of repertoire, the scat singing, the body language: depending on your predisposition, it’s all either extremely righteous or too hip by half. And it’s not as if Elling has eased up on his presentation over the years: consult the evocative lede in Ben Ratliff’s live review from earlier this month.

What has changed, I submit to you, is Elling’s spiritual comfort as a performer, nourished now by a level of conviction deeper than confidence. He was never lacking for swagger as a younger singer, and he still has it — but it comes tempered now by a more grounded self-assurance. In the JazzTimes piece, he talks about not needing to dazzle all the time. It don’t take fireworks to, y’know, set things ablaze.

Which is a fine segue to the opening track of The Gate, Elling’s take on a King Crimson song (!!) — and one of the more casually bewitching vocal performances on record in recent memory.

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* He made an oblique reference to my own blunt critique, which I’d always considered a counterweight to my glowing appraisals elsewhere. Of course I realize this reciprocal notion — a good word here offsets a stiletto-to-the-gut there — is not really how it works. So for the record: I’ve been a great admirer since I first heard Elling in the mid-’90s, sometime between Close Your Eyes and The Messenger. But I really didn’t like Nightmoves. (Tough love! It’s what we’re here for.)