Kurt Elling Talks to 1320Radio

Kurt Elling is the one of the finest contemporary jazz singers of recent times, but he's also noted for a thoughtful eclecticism that matches his undoubted artistry. A string of acclaimed albums, countless bravura performances and numerous inventive collaborations suggest that there are few challenges that the man from Chicago does not relish.
One alliance of particular note is Kurt Elling's special relationship with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and its founder director Tommy Smith. In the late 1980s, Elling spent a year living in Edinburgh on sabbatical from his studies at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota. It was there that he first met Tommy Smith through their mutual interest and shared ambitions in jazz. In hindsight, it now seems inevitable that these kindred spirits should have found one another and become such firm friends.

Since then, Elling has appeared on stage with the SNJO in 2011 to sing selections as disparate as John Coltrane's Resolution and Joe Jackson's Steppin' Out and, most memorably, to perform for the enigmatic Syntopicon project in 2014. Few among those Scottish audiences last year will forget Kurt Elling in full flow on Charles Mingus' Duke Ellington's Sound of Love, or the way that he moved them with his wonderful interpretation of the traditional Loch Tay Boat Song.

Elling returns to Scotland in May this year to help celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the SNJO by performing a very special programme of jazz song. Elling Swings Sinatra promises to be much more than a tribute to The Voice, it's more likely to be modern jazz the way it really should be heard – vital, alive and emphatically creative. These shows will be an early highlight in the Scottish musical calendar and a rare opportunity to hear an authentic jazzman bring out the best in the Sinatra songbook.

The multi-award winning vocalist kindly took time out from a busy schedule to respond to some questions from 1320Radio. We began by quizzing him about his status as a world citizen and his time in Scotland.

Many thanks for agreeing to talk to 1320Radio Kurt. One glance at your touring history tells us that you've been around the world. However, the empathy you conveyed on the Loch Tay Boat Song suggests you have a soft spot for Scotland. I wonder if you have any particular memories of your student days in Edinburgh, or even Scotland in general you'd like to share with us?

K.E.: “I do have especially fond memories of my several visits to Scotland. Scotland was the first country I “collected” when I first started traveling, and because of university studies I was able to actually spend time and make longer-lasting friendships – some of which I cherish to this day. I've tried to make the most of my times in Scotland. I've backpacked, camped and climbed with friends, spent a wild Hogmanay weekend on Iona with the sea winds whipping the snow. My wife and I spent our honeymoon in Scotland, driving the Whiskey Trail and the west coast all the way up to John O' Groats. I have a strapping and brilliant godson who lives up in Ullapool. And now, to have time with Tommy Smith on the several occasions he has invited me to join him has been very rewarding. I have a high respect for Tommy and for what he is accomplishing as an individual musician and as a bandleader and educator. I am proud to call him a friend and to perform with him and the SNJO in a country of such beauty and history.”

I'm interested in your point of view as a humanist and your interest in philosophy and religion. You come across as a very frank and honest person who relishes discourse. I'm really intrigued to know whether you feel you have to strike a carefully balanced position between the very serious artist and the seriously entertaining singer.

K.E.: “As with so many elements in performance and in life it is a matter of balance – one that one must discover instinctively and by trial and error. Different projects ask for different ingredients. If I do a show on Walt Whitman or a concept show with a title like “Grand Obsessions and Petty Delusions” then things may well be weighted more toward thought provocation. With a Sinatra show, or maybe a Valentine's Day show I expect there may be a bit less. But it's all an experiment.”

You're unquestionably a very fine jazz singer. We can point to ten Grammy nominations, a Grammy win in 2009 and several DownBeat awards if anyone is in any doubt about that. Nevertheless, there seems to be a thread of eclecticism running through your choices and decisions.

Your new album Passion World seems to state categorically that you're not about to be fenced in. It's a collection of different kinds of love songs from around the world, so I'm wondering if such a portmanteau presented problems of continuity and design, and if so, how were they resolved?

K.E.: “There were several challenges that were unique to this project. In addition to several studio recordings of my small group I wanted to work in some live orchestra and big band recordings – one of which features Tommy Smith and the SNJO as we perform the Loch Tay Boat Song in Glasgow. So sonically I had to puzzle out how to make things sound like they belonged together. Then there was the challenge of sequencing – how to move naturally from one piece to another. This was complicated further by the inclusion of pieces not in English. You want to offer the audience as seamless and welcoming a listening experience as possible. I hope listeners will come to love the individual recordings and songs even if they don't understand German or Portuguese . . . ”

Naturally, you've been influenced by all sorts of singers, especially given your vocal range and your association with the art of vocalese. Then there's your love of poetry and the spoken (if not bellowed) word. Still, your deep immersion in powerful free-spirited jazz and the humanity in your treatment of ballads are there for all to hear.

These latter attributes could easily describe Sinatra at the peak of his powers. Have you ever had to consciously resist the burden of perhaps being too closely associated with Sinatra's legacy? I also wonder if you're now at a particular time and place in your life and career where you feel you can sing Sinatra your way without having to answer (or live up to) to any preconceived expectations?

K.E.: “I think I was much more prone to be too closely identified with the work and sound of the great Mark Murphy earlier on. By now I am confident that I have my own recognizable sound. But I hope that means that I still have trace elements within my sound of Mark – and Sinatra and Jon Hendricks and even Joe Williams now and then. You want to have a family resemblance and still be a unique manifestation.”

Reference has been made to the Sinatra at the Sands recording with the Count Basie Orchestra as a fantastic example of vibrant, immediate, in-the-moment jazz music and song. However, in previous shows you revisited Sinatra's Live in Paris performances where he used a sextet. You'll be swinging Sinatra with a marvellous big band in the SNJO, can we expect a full force gale from start to finish, or should we just wait to be surprised?

K.E.: “We'll be revisiting several classic Nelson Riddle and Billy May arrangements, to be sure. But the SNJO has also commissioned several new arrangements for compositions that are closely identified with Sinatra. It's important to move the music forward even as we look back and celebrate past greatness.”

Lastly, where will your globetrotting musical life be taking you for the remainder of this year, and are you already looking forward to new projects in 2016?

K.E.: “Well, I think I'm going more or less directly from Scotland to some orchestra dates in Australia, if that's any indication. This summer and fall I'll be all over Europe with my small group and in between I'll be doing gigs in The States. I have several new projects that are vying for my attention – including the creation of a radio-play with music for the BBC, some kind of orchestral Christmas recording, and another new small group recording. Gotta' keep on moving, you know?”