Kurt Elling: The jazz singer

Grammy winner Kurt Elling adds his own lyrics to classic jazz instrumentals. He also reinvents songs from a variety of musical genres spanning generations. In addition, Elling sings words written purely as poetry.
But with every adventurous step comes that rich, expressive baritone. It's a vocal instrument as technically magnificent as it is emotive. For example, check out Elling's envelope-pushing vocalese – the term for adding lyrics to instrumentals – on “Night Dreamer,” jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter's famed composition. The performance is on Elling's 2000 Blue Note release “Live in Chicago.”

“First, I have an intuitive feeling about them, something about melody and harmony,” Elling explained during a phone interview. “Certainly, in Wayne's case, the actual sound of his saxophone tells a story and I get lots of images from the stuff he plays.”

Elling is the jazz singer for fans of true, contemporary jazz. The jazz aficionados at the magazine DownBeat have named him “Male Singer of the Year” for the last 13 years. Every one of Elling's nine albums has been nominated for a Grammy, including his latest, “1619 Broadway – The Brill Building Project.” It's a tribute of sorts to an office building in Manhattan where many of the greatest popular songs of all time were written.

“I walked by it on the way to my manager's office,” 45-year-old Elling said. “You see these beautiful bronze doors and this very elaborate entranceway and it makes you think of all the history, and all the great writers that passed that way, and made some of biggest hits of music of any place.”

“The Brill Building Project” begins, fittingly, with “On Broadway.” Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil started the song, which was completed in collaboration with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. It eventually became a big hit for The Drifters in 1963. The song gained even greater fame by George Benson about 15 years later. Elling slows the song down and emphasizes the pathos in a lyric about an entertainer trying desperately to survive in the Big Apple.

“I wanted to tell the story of all the cats scuffling and trying to hold it together,” Elling said. “I really read the lyrics and it became clear it was more a song of struggle than victory.”

Elling will likely perform “On Broadway” and more from his latest album and past releases when he fronts a quintet Friday at the Palladium Theatre in St. Petersburg. The concert is the latest by Real People Real Music, a production company founded and run by Sarasota resident Dr. Karl Lewis, a dentist operating out of Bradenton, who brought jazz singer Whitney James to Sarasota's Fogartyville Community Media and Arts Center for a show last month. James will open for Elling in St. Petersburg.

“I've been a fan forever,” James said of Elling. “It's a huge honor to be able to warm up a big crowd for him, he's amazing and I'm really looking forward to it.”

As for all the adoration, Elling, who has been called the greatest jazz singer alive, sounded embarrassed by it.

“Oh, I don't know,” he said. “It's kind of people to say, but I don't know if it's true.”