Kurt Elling Puts Jazz Spin on Classic Rock With Producer Don Was

The first time we came across Kurt Elling was in June of 1997 during a guerrilla campaign of gigs in the Northeast over a six-week stretch. It was towards the end of that run and the singer was walking with crutches after a hiking mishap. His iconoclast reputation as a divinity school dropout (one credit short of his Masters degree) only seemed to be heightened by the incongruent idea of a jazz singer performing in a dingy East Village rock club where we saw him. Though the setting was weird, we don’t remember a lot about the set, but they closed it out with Herbie Hancock’s ‘Hurricane.’
“I remember being exhausted and often terrified and hopeful,” Elling tells Spinner, recalling that crazy tour during a recent stop in Munich while out in support of his recently issued album, ‘The Gate.’ “I remember critics being piled into Birdland the first time I was there, and the judge-y looks on some of their faces. It was a hard time, but I believed in what we were doing then, and I believe in what we are doing now.”

Back then, Elling was something of a curiosity. Then and now, he is articulate to the point of verbosity. He projects a kind of a hip-cat persona that would seem to indicate lounge schmaltz, but ends up being edgy because of his choice of material and what he does with it. But perhaps what was most unique at the time was the fact that he was a younger male jazz singer.

“I knew at the time and I know now that there are very few jazz singers out there who are men,” he points out. “There are more guys coming on now, more guys younger than me who are out there trying to figure it out anyway. But when I was coming on, the only other singer under the age of 70 was Kevin Mahogany. I knew that there was a window open for someone to do something. I have no qualms about it: I play the right instrument.”

In the years that followed his 1995 debut, ‘Close Your Eyes,’ Elling has been nominated for a Grammy nine times before finally winning Best Jazz Vocal Album in 2010 for ‘Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman,’ which he’s following up with ‘The Gate.’ Produced by Don Was, who led pop-funk group Was (Was Not) and produced albums by Bob Dylan, Elton John, Bonnie Raitt, the Rolling Stones and countless other A-list acts, it’s no surprise that ‘The Gate’ is a different kind of jazz album from Elling. But that’s not entirely the of the producer’s influence — Elling had dreams of getting away from the smart, straight-ahead jazz and ballads of his previous albums and ended up finding a middle ground in songs by the Beatles, Joe Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind and Fire and others.

“As always, I’m just sort of following my instincts,” Elling explains. “I had some of these songs on mind for a while. I originally had more of a John Scofield or Charlie Hunter kind of record in mind. I wanted to make something that people can dance around to. But in true jazz fashion, you have to let the music lead you. You let transparency be the only inflexibility and be true to yourself. I’m more introspective so that’s what we did.”

Was actually introduced himself to Elling years ago. The two kept in contact and it seemed only a matter of time until they ended up doing something together. With the album that Elling seemed to have in mind, it was the ideal time to make the collaboration happen.

“It was kismet or fate, but to have someone like Don Was come on at this time was a nicely fated situation for me,” Elling explains. “Obviously, he comes a lot more from the rock world, yet he definitely respects what Laurence and I have been doing. He really didn’t want to mess with anything, especially when we have such clear ideas coming into the sessions. We were still able to gain from experience and wisdom. We learned some things and we had a really great time together.”

Like most jazz artists, Elling and his longtime collaborator and pianist Laurence Hobgood typically come into the studio prepared because time and budgets are tight. They moved away from the groove-based style they originally had in mind, but nonetheless still tackled such untested tunes as King Crimson’s ‘Matte Kundasai’ and Herbie Hancock’s ‘Come Running to Me.’ Miles Davis’s ‘Blue in Green’ (with Al Jarreau lyrics) was revived after a long hiatus.

According to Elling, Was’ reputation was such that it allowed the band to try new things that may not make label and management people comfortable, but because he’s Don Was they have to stand down and leave them to exploring the music.

“He’s a real cat, man,” Elling says of the producer. “I really feel that he’s going to be a long-term partner. We haven’t decided on the specifics of the next project because we are so busy right now, but we hope to work together in the future. I’ll be happy to hit it with Don anytime.”

The other notable figure on this album — and all Kurt Elling’s albums from the very beginning — is the aforementioned Laurence Hobgood. Elling and Hobgood came together when Hobgood was a regular pianist in saxophonist Ed Petersen’s band. After Petersen and Elling did some weddings together, Petersen thought enough of him to invite the singer down to play with his band, which was enough to pique Hobgood’s interest.

“There is no way my music situation would be as coherent, with the same qualities and depth, if it wasn’t for Laurence being on board,” Elling says. “Our talents and our skills complement each other very well. We are equally focused but I tend to point the way in a broad way and he’s the guy who puts pen to paper and really writes them down in notation form that what we discuss and decide upon together.”

It’s a partnership that continues to flourish after 10 albums together. These days, it would seem that little has changed, as the two still barnstorm on long tours. But with Elling’s meteoric rise to the upper echelon of jazz performers, they play in the world’s finest jazz clubs and jazz festivals rather than their home base at the Green Mill or some forgotten dive. Music still drives Elling, Hobgood and the band after all these years, but the singer takes none of their success for granted.

“I’m out here working and singing for people and working really hard, admittedly, without a lot of sleep,” the singer says without a hint of weariness in his voice. “But there are people out there suffering. And even in the places where there aren’t earthquakes and tsunamis, people are having a hard getting work these days. I’ve very, very happy to be out here right now, having the chance to do my little thing.”