Kurt Elling: Opening The Gate on the Next Phase of His Illustrious Vocal Career

Kurt Elling’s creative and commercial impact in jazz over the past 15 years makes the following hard to fathom: thousands of fans throughout the world might have been deprived of one of the most celebrated voices of this generation had this Grammy-winning singer, songwriter and scat master gone ahead and earned that final credit towards his master’s degree at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
After graduating in 1989 from Gustavus Adolphus, a private Minnesota liberal arts college, Elling enrolled in a graduate program to earn his degree in the philosophy of religion. He had his sights set on academia or working for the World Council of Churches after completing his advanced degree. But when jazz got a hold on him, he began playing gigs once a week at the Chicago basement club, Milt Trenier’s. Elling didn’t make much money there, but he gained invaluable knowledge from Karl Johnson, the house pianist, who became his musical mentor.

“By day I was reading dead German philosophers like Kant, Schleiermacher, and Martin Heidegger, trying to get a handle on that,” he says. “I was exploring the essential thoughts of human beings throughout history, and enjoyed being part of that conversation and thinking process. As an artist and improviser, I respect the notion of taking disparate ideas that juxtapose interesting and intelligent notions with emotional resonance. But realizing that I had these vocal gifts, I came to see that it was a more natural fit for me to be a creator than an academic. At night, I was sitting in with other musicians in clubs, and of course, you can’t do both and be effective. Ultimately, Saturday night won out over Sunday morning.”

Explaining that the “grad school issue became increasingly difficult to maintain,” Elling quit and held a series of day jobs, trying to make ends meet as a bartender, furniture mover and occasional wedding singer, in addition to the random club gig. “I took whatever work I could get, figuring I had nothing to lose. It was wrenching for me that my academic dreams didn’t pan out, and it took me a long time to get through that. But I knew I had to go for this. A lot of things began to fall into place and I was effective in hustling more work. The jazz life is full of heartbreak, but ultimately I came to see it as a noble calling. I was willing to do the hard work to have a career doing what I felt most passionate about.”

In addition to possessing a rich baritone that spans four octaves, Elling has long been praised by critics and fans alike for a command of rhythm, texture, phrasing and dynamics that’s more like a virtuoso jazz instrumentalist than a vocalist. In light of this, it’s fascinating to note that growing up in Rockford, Illinois, the Chicago-born musician started out with scant exposure to real jazz.

His parents listened to AM Radio “Music of Your Life” stations that played World War II era music – Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Nat “King” Cole, Peggy Lee. Elling attributes the sense of swing he ultimately embraced as rooted in this time, but the proverbial “jazz light” didn’t go off until he saw singer Mark Murphy perform at Artist’s Quarter in Minneapolis, a moment Elling says was full of the “exhilaration of discovery.”

The cool irony of Murphy triggering Elling’s embrace of jazz is that the younger singer’s style and accolades are almost mirror images of Murphy’s. In some ways, it’s as if the 79-year old Murphy has passed the jazz vocal baton to the next generation. Like Murphy, Elling at the age of 43 is most noted for his definitive and unique style of “vocalese” and vocal improvisation with both melody and lyrics. The natural heir to jazz pioneers Eddie Jefferson, King Pleasure, and Jon Hendricks, Elling has set his own lyrics to the improvised solos of Wayne Shorter, Keith Jarrett, and Pat Metheny. He often incorporates images and references from writers such as Rilke, Rumi, Neruda, and Proust into his work. The late poet and Bollingen Prize-winner Robert Creeley wrote, “Kurt Elling takes us into a world of sacred particulars. His words are informed by a powerful poetic spirit.”

From 1996 to 2001, Murphy won “Best Male Vocalist of the Year” in DownBeat Magazine’s readers’ poll. Elling has won the DownBeat Critics Poll eleven times (2000-2010) and the DownBeat Readers Poll and the Jazz Times Readers’ Poll six times, all in the Male Vocalist of the Year Category. Elling has also received the Jazz Journalists Association Male Singer of the Year Award seven times, and in 2010 he earned the Nightlife Award for Outstanding Jazz Vocalist in a Major Engagement.

On the Grammy front, Murphy has received a total of six nominations in the category of Best Jazz Vocal Performance. Elling has the unique distinction of receiving a nomination for every one of his first eight recordings, from his Blue Note works Close Your Eyes (1995), The Messenger (1997), Live In Chicago (2000), and Man In The Air (2003), to his popular Concord Music dates Nightmoves (2007) and Dedicated To You: Kurt Elling Sings The Music of Coltrane and Hartman (2009). His first three noms were for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, and his last five were for Best Jazz Vocal Album. In 2010, he earned his first Grammy win for Dedicated To You at a pre-telecast ceremony featuring a live Elling performance.

Over the years, Elling has recorded and performed with an array of artists, including Terence Blanchard, Dave Brubeck, Jon Hendricks, Charlie Hunter, Al Jarreau, Christian McBride, and Kurt Rosenwinkel. He served as the Artist-in-Residence for the Singapore Music and Monterey Jazz Festivals. He has also written multi-disciplinary works for The Steppenwolf Theatre and the City of Chicago. The Obama Administration’s first state dinner featured Elling in a command performance. When promoting the release of a new recording, he performs up to 200 dates a year in the U.S. and overseas. He is popular throughout Europe—including the UK, Spain, Germany, and Scandinavia (where he has performed with big bands), and Italy—and has toured Australia “seven or eight times.”

That’s a lofty legacy for any artist to live up to, but it’s a good bet that Elling will keep his Grammy streak alive with The Gate, a collection on which the singer stretches his stylistic boundaries further than ever before. Leading up to its release earlier in 2011, Elling completed a lengthy tour with the Monterey Jazz Festival All-Stars and staged “Passion World,” a commissioned event for Jazz at Lincoln Center with French accordion virtuoso, singing songs of love and loss in five languages.

Showcasing his remarkable range and the expansive possibilities of jazz, Elling sticks to English on The Gate as he explores a wide variety of pop, rock, soul, and jazz compositions—some renowned, others fairly obscure—by The Beatles (“Norwegian Wood”), King Crimson (“Matte Kudasai”), Herbie Hancock, (an elegant ballad version of “Come Running To Me”), Miles Davis (Al Jarreau’s hypnotic arrangement of “Blue and Green”), Stevie Wonder (“Golden Lady,” a popular staple of Elling’s live show), Joe Jackson (“Steppin’ Out”) and Earth, Wind & Fire (“After The Love Is Gone”). Elling displays a bright future for his songwriting, as well, with several originals including the witty, rhythmic “Samurai Cowboy” and lovely piano ballad, “Goodnight, Lady Bright.”

The collection marks a radical departure for Elling in that it’s his first recording not produced in collaboration with pianist and arranger Laurence Hobgood, the singer’s right-hand man since the days of Chicago’s Green Mill Jazz Club, where Elling played weekly gigs in the early ’90s. The Gate was helmed by pop/rock producer Don Was (Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan), who had long expressed his desire to work with Elling—an opportunity Elling found irresistible. The ensemble backing Elling includes Hobgood, guitarist/arranger John McLean, saxophonist Bob Mintzer (currently a member of the Yellowjackets), and double bass great John Patitucci.

Was says, “I first heard Kurt on the local jazz station and was knocked out by his exotic blend of soul, technique, intelligence, and charismatic hipness. He made this diverse collection of songs his own—and we had a blast!”

“Don contacted me several years ago,” Elling says, “and told me he had been listening to some of the records Laurence and I made together and was excited about them and touched by them. He invited me to come out to one of his shows in Chicago, and we kept in touch after that. All the while my ideas for the kind of recording The Gate became were percolating in my mind. The few new compositions were going in a different direction. I could envision John McLean’s guitar sounding great on songs I was thinking about by King Crimson and Stevie Wonder. I thought it would be cool to reach out to Don and see if he wanted to produce it. His involvement isn’t a departure from what we had done in the past, it was simply reflective of my artistic and stylistic growth and I enjoyed the support he lent to my artistic vision.

“What Don brought to this project,” the singer adds, “was his love of music and musicians, and a confidence that liberated us from all concern. He is the consummate producer and this was an extraordinary experience—my favorite in a studio. Don was fearless. In the past, Laurence and I might be hesitant to try certain things, and the guys at the label would be, as well. But with Don, it was ‘Hey, let’s try this,’ and if he said, ‘Let’s do it,’ we did it! He gave us the freedom and imprimatur of his renown as a brother-in-arms. Doing this one right after the Coltrane/Hartman recording, which was completely straight-ahead jazz, showed me that jazz is expansive enough to encounter, absorb, digest, transmit, and transform any other idiom of music. We make the pop and rock songs here a natural part of the jazz world. And the musicians inspired me to be … better.”

Elling’s vast repertoire includes original compositions plus modern interpretations of standards, all of which are springboards for inspired improvisation, scatting, spoken word and poetry. The poetic element of his commissioned works is particularly intriguing, setting him apart from other jazz singers associated with standards. In 1998, Elling undertook a critical, multi-dimensional, poetry and music driven exploration of the life and work of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre; the show was also mounted at The Kennedy Center, Philadelphia’s Annenberg Center, and at Ireland’s Galway Festival. A year later, he was commissioned to create an event fusing jazz and modern dance, this time featuring his wife, dancer Jennifer Elling.

The success of that show inspired the City of Chicago to hire Elling to write, direct, perform in and host a major multi-arts event for its millennial celebration. Elling’s production, “This Is Our Music, These Are Our People,” featured blues great Buddy Guy, the late author and historian Studs Terkel, word jazz artist Ken Nordine, saxophonist Von Freeman, poet Gwendolyn Brooks, members of the Joffrey Ballet, the visual art of Ed Paschke and Tony Fitzpatrick, and a 90-voice gospel choir. Elling’s later work for the Steppenwolf Theatre, “LA/CHI/NY,” included one poet and one musician from each of America’s three great cities to bring the sounds of their environments to the stage.

In 2006, as Artist-in-Residence at the 49th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival, Elling teamed up with composer/bassist John Clayton to create “Red Man/Black Man.” Here Elling juxtaposed his own writing with the works of Native American poets—most notably Maurice Kenny and, once again, the late Pulitzer Prize-winner Gwendolyn Brooks—in a musical setting featuring the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra.

“As a singer,” Elling says, “I’m naturally dealing with things that involve words and telling specific stories in song. It seems natural as a lyricist to pay attention to masters of words and language, so poetry is a perfect fit for me as a basis for these larger works. I’m fortunate to know people at theatre companies who appreciate what I do and ask me to step forward to put things together. Sometimes, they will suggest a certain sonic atmosphere or theme, and then it’s fun to just run with it.”

Elling continues, “As with these shows, my success in the jazz world has a lot to do with the people around me. I credit the musicians on the Chicago scene in the ’90s who pulled me in and invited me to perform with them, for helping get my career off the ground. Without them, I would not have what I consider this lofty vocation, at all. Likewise, now that I live in New York City, I’m humbly indebted to the musicians here who offer me their trust, inspire me with their work ethic, and have made me part of an extended family. It’s wonderful to know that people are emotionally moved and touched by my singing, but while I am enjoying this intimate connection with them, I am also doing my best to honor the musicians who inspired me to take a chance on jazz and be up there in the first place.”