Kurt Elling: “To be happy is enough”

Kurt Elling, a 43-year-old Chicago-raised New Yorker, speaks with Canadian jazz pianist and blogger Peter Hum not only about his next CD, The Gate, (to be released by Concord Jazz in early February), but also about his growth as an artist and the spiritual component of his art.

PH: Tell me about your new recording.

KE: It’s called The Gate. It was produced by Don Was. It features (bassist) John Patitucci and (drummer) Terreon Gully and my regular collaborator (pianist/musical director) Laurence Hobgood, and also John McLean, a lesser known but very accomplished and stellar guitar player from Chicago.

PH: What music have you brought together for this disc?

KE: It’s kind of an eclectic mix. We’ve got some King Crimson material, we’ve got some Beatles material, some Zawinul, some Marc Johnson, the bassist, with some new lyrics of mine. Also some Herbie Hancock stuff. We do a version of Blue in Green so depending on whether you think, Miles wrote it or Bill Evans wrote it, you can say whichever one you think.

PH: [For those who want greater details, I believe the Beatles tune is Norwegian Wood, the Joe Zawinul tune is a version of Dream Clock, the Marc Johnson tune is a version of Samurai Hee-Haw, and my other guesses follow — PH] Is [Stevie Wonder’s] Golden Lady on this one too?

KE: Yup, got some Stevie too. Sure.

PH: And [Earth Wind and Fire’s] After the Love Has Gone?

KE: Yes….

This record follows right along after Night Moves, right along after Man in the Air, right along after The Messenger. It seems to fit in that kind of growth space very comfortably.

PH: You just used the word growth… how do you think of it as an advancement of your art?

KE: Well, for my money, it’s a natural progression of forward-thinking music that is acoustically-based, that is jazz-based, that is trying to utilize everything we’ve learned up to this point and that takes a step forward. At the same time, it’s something we’re not trying to over-analyze in terms of its so-called jazz quotient. We’re just jazz musicians playing music that we really want to play.

PH: Am I right that your usual practice is to take material that you’ve been performing for some time and bring it together to the recording session?

KE: In as much as we can, yes. There are always a number of a pieces on a given disc that we haven’t done in live settings yet, that we will be growing into over time. But as much as I can be prepared…. you know, we don’t have a whole lot of money going into the studio. We’ve got to get the job done. So you need to be as clear as possible in your direction and as clear as possible in your preparation, and as disciplined and complete as possible in your execution.

PH: How many days in the studio did you have?

KE: We just had four days in the studio to really put it down with the rhythm section, and then we had another small number of days to do the vocal overlays and the harmony parts and that kind of thing out in Los Angeles.

PH: What was it like working with Don Was? (Note: Was is an uber-producer in the music world, who has produced scores of rock and pop hits for artists such as Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson and the Rolling Stones – PH)

KE: Man, it was great. It was really one of the nicest experiences I’ve ever had in the studio. Don is completely supportive of the artist. He’s completely in your corner. You know that he’s got your back on everything from quality control to who’s in the building. Just everything felt so nice, and you feel so taken care of and so loved, that you really want to give… well, you always want to give the best thing that you can, but in circumstances like that, you just feel so energized to do so and so empowered to do so, that it’s really a thrill….

PH: So when it comes to your jazz practice and his way of doing things, how did that fit, how did that come together?

KE: Well, it fit great, because he’s one of the ultimate cats who’s ready to adapt to what the artist needs. He just wants the best music to come out of it. He’s been in so many situations and has worked it out with so many different kinds of people. It seemed to me like it was very easy for him. I hope it was. He sure made it easy for us.

PH: Now is this the first time you recorded with John Patitucci and Terreon?

KE: Yes.

PH: What prompted you to invite them to the session?

KE: I really heard Terreon happening on the kind of material that we’re going for because he’s so inventive. His groove is so dependable. He’s a mature, but still blossoming, if you will, very courageous artist. Man, his stuff is just so killing. I really wanted somebody who was going to invent a bunch of new stuff for me and I knew he was the right cat for this material.

And then Patitucci, of course, is one of the world’s great bassists. We’ve been friendly for a long time now. Our little girls have played together in different locations together in the world when we’ve been on the road. I’ve sat in with him a couple of times and he’s sat in with me. He’s just such a beautiful cat and obviously such a great and accomplished artist.

And again I needed somebody who was going to invent new things because in some cases, I was stretching it out so far that I didn’t even know how it was going to sound on some of these charts where we came into the studio, and we hadn’t played them on the road. And I didn’t know what I wanted specifically.

I would just say, ‘All right, cats, you’ve got the paper in front of you. I’m not really sure exactly what this is. Here’s the spirit of what I want, and I’ll sing the melody for you, and then I’m just going to leave it to you.. Let’s try a couple of things.’ And then Patitucci would be like OK, he’d look at the page, and he’d say, ‘What do you think about this?’ He’d just start playing, and that would end up being the cut because it was so great.

PH: What would be the best example of that on the disc?

KE: [The King Crimson composition] Matte Kudasai certainly, man. As soon as we discovered that was where it going to go, it was like straight up, like, yes, that’s what I want… That’s a real prime example, because the way that comes down, it’s completely organic, and it’s based entirely on what the rhythm section came up with in the blink of the eye. It’s perfect, from where I sit. It’s exactly what I wanted and I didn’t even know it….

PH: One more question about the disc… Why is it called The Gate?

KE: Well, it’s a reference to a lot of things. It’s a reference to “swings like a gate.” It’s a reference to the Gateless Gate that you’ll find in the East. To the gate that you’ll pass through between the sacred and the profane that is around you all the time, that is awaiting every step, that you fall into, that you experiment with from childhood on.

PH: I knew there wasn’t just one answer from you on this one.

KE: [Laughs] And also, every recording is a gate. Every recording is something that you pass through, that makes a new statement, that takes you into a new territory….

PH: A few minutes ago you mentioned the sacred and the profane. It seems to me that before you came to jazz, ideas of spirituality were certainly on your mind. I’m wondering, to what extent do you see what you do as an artist, as a spiritual practice, either performing or on your own time.

KE: Absolutely. That’s largely what makes it a worthwhile effort. I think that music is a passageway, regardless of whether it’s my specific take on it or not, or whether it’s my intention or not.

It just happens that jazz has a very long history of musicians and artists understanding that there’s a transcendent experience in trying to be transparent and clear in music and reaching out for something that you as an artist and perhaps no one has ever played before, a certain combination of notes, a certain melody that comes out, a certain experience on a given night that’s never occurred before and won’t be repeated. That is a direct communication of the artist’s spirit with the audience’s collective spirit and back again. I would have a hard time as seeing that as anything other than spiritual….

…[W]hen I think of the people who are most legendary and are most expressive… by and large… who do you think of? Duke Ellington. There’s a spirit being. Charlie Parker. Definitely a transcendent mind. Monk was in love with the transcendent spirit… And I don’t mean to just name people who have passed over. I mean, Herbie, Wayne, Dave Holland, Chick Corea, these are all people who are going down conscious spiritual paths and have a notion of music as an extended arm of their spiritual lives.

PH: And you would count yourself in their company?

KE: I would hesitate to say I count myself in their company. I mean, yes, in as much as I’m a jazz singer, and yes, in as much as I have an awareness of the possibilities. But I would hesitate, and I will hesitate throughout my life, to put myself throughout my life to put myself in that camp of musical command and virtuosic accomplishment…

PH: What I meant to say is that you have spiritual aspirations…

KE: Aspirations? Sure. And I go down my path and I try not to be pontificating about it. And I certainly don’t bring it up to people unless it’s an informed question such as the ones you’ve been raising. I don’t go out to audiences and say, “Hey look how spiritual we’re all going to be tonight.” We’re here to have fun.

Even just a situation in which members of an audience forget their concerns… Because one of the definitions of happiness is that one is not self-conscious, one is no longer conscious of history, of future, of physical feeling, of concern, worry, anxiety, regret — any of the things that commonly put us in a situation of being unhappy — if all those are gone, if all those are at least momentarily diffused and forgotten, then one tends to be happy. And on a given night, if music moves you and touches you and you’re in the moment, and you’re not thinking about your concerns, your bills, the economy, whatever, then you’re happy. And that, in and of itself, is a spiritual awakening, at least for an hour and a half, two hours. To be happy is enough.