Kurt Elling: Question man

Though you might not guess it from his soul-patched jazzman persona, vocalist Kurt Elling grew up singing in church choirs. He even spent a year in divinity school studying to be a professor of religion.
But when Elling, 45, talks about why he makes the kind of music he does, you sense that, for him, playing jazz was a natural progression in a lifelong quest for transcendence.

“I think there's not enough awe in our current experience,” he says, ticking off the list of small distractions — “stumbling blocks, monetary gain, deadlines, things that are passing, up-to-the-minute news” — that take our attention away from what really matters.

“Music,” he goes on, “has always served as a means of communicating that produces wonder.”

As it happens, Kurt Elling is himself worthy of a certain degree of awe. With a four-octave range and a masterful command of jazz idioms, including the difficult art of vocalese (adding lyrics to melodies originally composed as instrumental solos), he has been named Male Vocalist of the Year for the last 13 years in the prestigious DownBeat Critics' Poll, and all 10 of his albums have been Grammy nominees (with 2009's Dedicated to You earning him a win). He hits the Palladium fresh off a sold-out European tour.

Elling's latest album, 1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project, is a fine showcase for his musical chops and his uncanny way with a lyric. It's also a feat of daring.

Drawing from the deep pool of songwriters who worked at the Brill from the 1950s to the '70s, he brings new life to pop ditties you wouldn't have believed had any juice left in them and braves standards whose renditions are so indelibly associated with their original artists you wonder what else anyone could add.

“Pleasant Valley Sunday,” a 1967 Monkees hit by the quintessential Brill team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King, lands firmly in the first category. But Elling, with the help of music director Laurence Hobgood, gives this sunny jab at suburban conformity a much harsher edge. His voice a sardonic growl, he embellishes the lyrics to condemn the “zombie wasteland” of present-day consumer culture and interpolates sound clips of sitcom laugh-tracks and TV ads.

If that all sounds a bit much — and it is, in a good way — the contrast with Elling's treatment of King's “So Far Away” couldn't be more stark. You might think the composer's own version would be the definitive one, but Elling's slow, meditative approach is revelatory.

It's one of two numbers on the CD that express the sadness of being far from home; the other is a heart-wrenching cover of Paul Simon's “An American Tune.” Elling's identification with the songwriters' sense of yearning is apparent.

“You're catching me on one of the rare days when I'm actually at home,” he tells me on the phone from Manhattan, after a tour that has taken him from London to Spain to Slovenia. Married, with a 7-year-old daughter, he says the road can be difficult — “200 nights a year is a real bear” — and that yes, a song like “So Far Away” carries more than a little personal meaning for him.

That's exactly why he chose it.

“Part of the job is to be transparent as a performer, and I try to be transparent from the moment I choose the compositions,” he says. “From jump street it's a matter of doing something that's true to my experience.”

He's a word guy as much as he's a music guy. On a vocalese tour de force like “Tutti for Cootie,” a rollercoaster of a tone poem based on a solo by trumpeter Cootie Williams, it's not just his vocal agility that's impressive. It's also the fact that he wrote the lyrics.

In a time when the Michael Bubles and Rod Stewarts of the world are raking in record sales with swingin' but safe approaches to the American songbook, Elling knows he's operating in more esoteric territory. But he values his place in upholding what he calls the “beautiful tradition” of jazz. Talking about Mark Murphy, arguably his forebear as a vocal jazz innovator, he could be describing himself:

“He's the most recent incarnation of someone who took the whole tradition that preceded him, understands it and goes his own unique way … taking a great deal of risks with improvisation and interpretation.”

And besides, Elling's own personality seems constitutionally averse to playing it safe.

“As a person and as an artist,” he says, “it's my inclination and my choice and my habit to try to live the questions more than the answers… and as a jazz musician that's a perfect standpoint from which to live our life. You're always asking what melody has not been played, what improv moves are going to happen tonight — between musicians and audience, between musicians and musicians.

“Jazz,” he says lovingly, “is a permanent state of question.”