Kurt Elling opens The Gate to some contemporary classics

It was through his father, a Kapellmeister at a local Lutheran church, that jazz maestro Kurt Elling was first introduced to music. In growing up in Rockford, Illinois, Elling embraced a range of musical instruments including playing the violin, French horn, piano, and drums while also singing in various choirs. His world at the time mostly revolved around classical music and it wasn’t until he ventured on to graduate school in Chicago did jazz music really begin to seed itself within his psyche. And it seeded itself in such a way that Elling eventually left school, just one credit short of a master’s degree, to become a jazz vocalist.
His first set of demos found their way to Blue Note Records and across the past twenty years Elling has carved a remarkable career that his seen him honored with nine Grammy Award nominations with the last, a 2009 live tribute to the classic album “John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman” titled “Dedicated to You,” yielding a win for Best Vocal Jazz Album. His latest recorded venture, “The Gate,” sees Elling embracing an intriguing collection of classic standards and contemporary pop songs under the production mastery of Don Was. Their union might have resulted from a little mutual admiration from a far, but what the two have crafted is an undertaking as intimate, personal, and inflicting as music can get. On Tuesday, April 19, Elling ventures to Santa Barbara for their Jazz at the Lobero series. But don’t think you are going to be swayed by the theatre’s ornate setting as so many scribes have lauded, as Elling and his ensemble plan to seduce you into their world for the night.

Your upcoming tour encompasses quite an eclectic array of venues – from an elegant old theatre in Santa Barbara to a nightclub in San Diego and even a bar and grille in Los Angeles. I am wondering if place might exert an influence upon the music you produce on any given night?

I guess after 17 years of being on the road, I’ve encounter just about as many variables as you can imagine. And, when we’re on the road every day, that tends to present its own challenges and its own opportunities. Yeah, it’s an eclectic gathering of venues, but for me it’s just another tour. I tend to customize and react in a different way more to an audience and really respond more to their energy than to the architectural surroundings.

How do you gauge or feel out an audience?

I can try to check out the audience and their vibe as they’re gathering and coming in and certainly once we’re on stage I listen to them and try to cater to that over the course of the evening. But also I think what we present is something that already has a very strong focal point for an audience regardless of the circumstances that they’re coming from. We really try to take people out of the element that they currently exist in and bring them into our world a little bit.

You of course have a new album and it is a very intriguing undertaking. Not only are you embracing a selection of standards, but also some more contemporary popular compositions. And they all sit together beautifully …

Thank you. I think of The Gate as a recording that follows in a very natural and organic progression from the great majority of the records that we’ve made. But especially across the last three studio records – Man in the Air, though Night Moves and now to The Gate – I think we’ve been kind of developing in this direction. Having Don Was on board was a great help to our confidence and morale in doing this work and I think that, certainly in this case, the musicians added a great deal to the quality of the project.

He was indeed an inspired choice for this undertaking. How did your connection with Don Was come about?

He contacted me several years ago now, just as a friendly gesture. He was on the road with his band and was listening to my records in the tour bus and wanted to meet me. So I came out and we really connected on a personal level right away and started enjoying really good conversations and having interesting times together. It was a very natural thing.

You mentioned he was a great help to your confidence and morale – in what way?

I think that when someone of his qualifications and his experience comes into your scene it makes it possible for a certain amount of energy to come into play that is creative and productive and helpful and supportive. Well, that doesn’t come around every day, especially for a jazz singer. So I was really happy to have that energy.

How did the foundations for this recording form?

I have the luxury of having a working band so, when I have an idea for something, if it’s written down in some way or I can communicate it some way to the band, then they can respond to it and start to get it going. When we’re on the road, it can be a while between records so I have plenty of time to start rolling stuff together.

I believe your musical induction came through singing in choirs as a child and that classical music defined your early life. When did the importance of words reveal itself to you?

Well, it’s tough to pinpoint a moment. But I will say that I knew for quite a long time that it would be lovely and wonderful to sing some of the inspired and profound melodies that I was hearing on recordings that different players had improvised. But I didn’t that “vocalese” existed or that that was possible. When the coin dropped I came to understand what Jon Hendricks was doing with Lambert, Hendricks and Ross and what Eddie Jefferson was doing. Then I said, oh well, now I can start writing lyrics to things and I can actual sing all these lovely melodies that I’ve cared for over all these years.

It must be quite an intricate process?

It’s definitely quite a lot of effort. You have to have an inspired moment that tells you what content direction you want to go in. And you have to vet whether or not the solo is a likely choice. Things that Coltrane plays you shouldn’t really try to sing because it’s going to sound ridiculous no matter what words you out to it because there are just too many notes. He’s playing with sheets of sound. It would just sound like caterwauling which I sound like plenty of times now anyway so I don’t want to go down that road if I can avoid it. And there are some things that are too long and some things that are too obscure.

So what then do you look for in a piece of music?

I go for things that speak to my heart and I go for things that seem plausible and that I have an inspired idea about. After that it becomes boatloads of work. You have to do the transcription and figure our how the language is going to flexibly adapt to the needs and rhythms of a contemporary melody.

Who are some the people that inspire you lyrically?

I mentioned Jon Hendricks. He’s almost like a second father to me on a personal level as much as on a writing level. Eddie Jefferson, obviously. I think of the contemporary writers, Norma Winstone writes a very lusty lyric. Her things are a little bit mysterious and emotionally transparent, but you also can’t really pin down what some of the meanings are and I think that’s really good writing. You know, there’s a young gal named Becca Stevens who I think is really wonderful. She’s writing both lyric and melody and I think she’s got a real gift. But you know, I also try to pay attention to poets and the work that they’re doing and a lot of the time that helps me figure out what I need to be talking about.

Contemporary or classical poets?

There are some contemporary cats. But Kenneth Rexroth is a big influence on me, as are Walt Whitman and other classic cats.

You have enjoyed nine Grammy Award nominations with your last yielding a win. What do use as a gauge for the success of any given undertaking?

I measure it by whether I like it or not. But I understand that what I’m trying to do is different from mere entertainment. I understand that what I’m trying to do is challenging and surprising. That’s what a jazz singer is supposed to do. So it will take a little while for my thing to get over. And I understand that when lightening strikes, in whatever form that’s going to take, I will be that much more prepared as an artist to enjoy it and be responsible with it.