Kurt Elling: Out of This World

Kurt Elling's richly resonant, subtly virtuosic voice is one of the most recognisable and celebrated in jazz earning him a Grammy for his 2009 album Dedicated To You alongside 10 other Grammy nominations, and seen him top numerous critics polls. Yet with the end of his 20-year musical partnership with pianist Laurence Hobgood, Elling is now seeking out new artistic territory, as heard on his latest album, Passion World, which sees his globetrotting tastes exploring music from Brazil, Ireland, France, Scotland, Iceland and Cuba.
Peter Quinn spoke to the singer about his journey into the unknown, embracing change and his hopes and fears for the heart and soul of humanity.

Kurt Elling is ringing the changes. On the business side, he's with new management. On the artistic side, his latest release, Passion World, is an ambitious new project which casts its stylistic net far and wide, mostly from outside the jazz canon. But the most far-reaching change since our last conversation ('Up On The Roof', Jazzwise 169) is the ending of his long-standing musical relationship with pianist and arranger Laurence Hobgood.

When I spoke to the producer of Elling's 2011 album The Gate, Don Was, at the time of the album's release, he noted the following about the closeness of Hobgood and Elling's musical relationship: “What I discovered as producer of The Gate is that Kurt and Laurence together form this kind of living organism that is rapidly evolving over time. The way they work off each other is really unique, and magnificent.” Sitting in the top floor bar of a central London hotel, surveying the city's vastness, I suggest to Elling that to end that relationship – Hobgood had been a key collaborator for almost two decades, from the time of the singer's 1995 Blue Note debut Close Your Eyes – must have been incredibly difficult.

“It was,” he replies. “And I'm confident that in the fullness of time we'll be able to, and we'll both desire to, revisit it. It's a long, long time working with somebody like that, and him working with somebody like this. I'm certainly proud of everything we've done together and everything we learnt together and everything we taught each other. But I think it's just a natural part of the adventure that you try different things with different people.

“God, I'm learning so much about skills I didn't even know that I had developed,” he continues. “Putting the new record together felt like a much bigger risk: just the doing of it and the emotional support that I got from the guys in the band. They all knew that it was a new way of going about making a record, me not having Laurence there as a sounding board. Laurence needs to have the freedom to not be bound by whatever creative decisions I want to make on the stand. And while it's true that we have been stronger together, I'm pretty sure we're strong individually, and he deserves the time to find out where his trio thing can take him. And who wouldn't want to hire this guy, right?”

Following this parting of ways, I wonder who Elling now looks to as his sounding board. “I don't think that there is one at this point, it's developing,” he says. “We don't have a stable piano chair. It just makes sense, after 20 years, not to be tied down again. And it's an open-ended question as to what the band sound wants to develop into. John McLean on guitar has been with me long enough that I know what kind of things he's capable of and I want to play off of those elements. And that probably means getting a lot more B3 in the mix, so I've got to have a piano player with a slightly different skill set. And it takes a while for band personalities to gel and for things to become themselves. The important thing is to make friendships and value people and value the experience. I just want it to continue to open out. While I'm on earth and while I can do this stuff, it isn't just going down the one track. I think that would be boring for everybody. I want to be surprised and I want to surprise myself.”

The impulse behind the singer's eleventh album, Passion World, a stunning collection about how love and heartbreak is interpreted through song in different musical cultures, stems from a long-standing desire to perform with the French accordion maestro Richard Galliano. Elling vividly recalls the first time the accordionist crossed his radar.

“We were on a festival together in Brazil. The level of musical eloquence and dexterity was just thrilling. And, of course, the sound. As a Chicagoan I can go down the road of an accordion player: I can hears me some accordion, brother! Then I heard him in Paris a couple of times and started to dig into the recordings. Jazz at Lincoln Center invited me to do some nights and, as always, I'm trying to figure out where's the road in my head leading me. And Galliano's was the name at the top of my list. I didn't even think it would be possible: the guy lives over in Paris, who's going to pay for that? So Jazz at Lincoln Center, bless them, said OK let's do that. Wow, well, I better get to work. I had heard him in enough contexts that I knew he was pretty omni-competent and ready to play in many different styles. So some of the things that we had been doing to reach a hand of friendship out to audiences came more into focus and then it became that kind of a show. It's incredibly gratifying to have a friendly relationship with a guy that doesn't even speak the same language.”

With new lyrics penned by Elling, including a particularly beautiful line in the Pat Metheny song 'After The Door' (originally titled 'Another Life') – 'The songs I already know, lovely as they are, should grow into something more. There's a world of love and music after the door' – appears to sum up the entire ethos of the album.

“I was hoping it would,” Elling says. “I was hoping the message would get out. Life is the adventure; you want to find out what's out there. It isn't until you tie yourself to the bench that you discover: are you really willing to sacrifice? Are you really willing to have your heart broken? Are you really willing to risk it all? Are you dedicated enough? Can you figure out a way to be smarter than everybody else in the room at this one thing? And as you go down that road, you will have your heart broken, and you will sacrifice, and if you are dedicated enough you'll find out. And as that happens, you'll be out in the world and it isn't just the music. But it's the same road. And it also speaks a little bit to parting with Laurence. It's like, well I know all these songs, what don't I know? I know how to sing all these ways; can I also learn how to sing these ways? Can I work with these people?”

The album's eclectic song list draws not only on Brazilian and Cuban music, but also on French chanson, Brahms, and traditional Scottish music, the latter remembered from time spent as a student in Scotland before his journey in jazz had begun. “I had this stupid ukulele along with me,” he recalls. “And I busked a little bit, which was just embarrassing. But it turns out you only need five or six chords to do just about any tune you want to play. And that song stuck in my head.” Kurt Elling busking traditional Scottish songs on a ukulele – no, I can't imagine it either.

If Passion World represents a search for new sound worlds and musical relationships, with Elling's voice now having reached its full maturity, I ask if the album also illustrates a desire to draw on new stylistic elements? “Oh yeah,” Elling says. “With Passion World I'm trying to sing believably in different languages and slightly different styles. I don't want to just jettison my jazz identity or anything like that. I want to meet in the middle. But I'd love to learn how to sing some fado, because it's so gorgeous and profound. Turkish music: I'd love to get over there and kick that stuff and figure it out. Because it's beautiful. If I can investigate some other things and have some more friendships, that's really what it's about. I haven't even touched on Asia or Africa on this record. I'm kind of thinking of this as volume one, although I don't have specific plans for when a volume two would appear. But, God willing, I'll be able to tour a little bit longer and learn some more stuff…. (interview continues)

Click here to read Peter Quinn's interview in its entirety on the Jazzwise Magazine website.

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This article originally appeared as the cover story in Jazzwise, July 2015, #198.