Kurt Elling to Sing Sinatra at Lied Center

Before Kurt Elling became a successful jazz vocalist, he was a mover and a shaker — literally.
In the early 1990s, in his hometown of Chicago, he worked as a mover and a bartender to make ends meet.

“I did all kinds of stuff to keep it going,” he said in a phone interview from London — of all places — to promote his concert Thursday at the Lied Center for Performing Arts.

He credits — in some part — that blue collar background for getting him to where he is now — a Grammy Award winner and a much-in-demand performer.

“There's nothing wrong with sweating it out,” Elling, 47, said of the moving work. “I needed to make the rent, man. I really enjoyed hoisting. I like a clean job. I walk into the room and it's, 'Here, move all this out to the truck.' And when you move it out to the truck, the job's done. Then, you put it in the next place, and that job is done.”

So how's the back?

“It's not nearly as strong as it used to be,” Elling said, laughing. “I can still move it when I need to. But I wouldn't recommend it for myself at this point.”

For his Lied concert, Elling and his band will pay homage to Frank Sinatra's 99th birthday next month (Dec. 12) with a program called “Kurt Elling Swings Sinatra.” He'll lend his voice to Sinatra's repertoire with reinterpretations of such classic hits as “Come Fly With Me,” “My Funny Valentine,” “The Lady Is a Tramp” and “I've Got You Under My Skin.”

“It would be incorrect for somebody in my position to not tip his hat to him, not only for artistic reasons, but he was arguably the most influential voice in the Western world in the 20th century, and he definitely deserves his due. I know it makes a lot of people really happy when I sing his material, and it makes me happy to do it.”

Elling has two Sinatra standards — “Come Fly With Me” and “I Only Have Eyes for You” — on his most recent recording, the 2012, Grammy-nominated “1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project,” which honors the legendary location in New York City.

“We do ('Eyes') as a ballad in five that's very floaty,” he said. “It's beautiful that way. But I also like to do the hard-swinging, big band numbers as well.”

Elling didn't grow up with a jazz background. His father was a church musician, and Elling sang Bach motets in church choirs. In high school, he sang Brahms' “Requiem” and Orff's “Carmina Burana.”

“I wanted to think of myself as a writer, and I didn't see myself writing classical compositions,” he said. “Then I got turned on to jazz and tried to figure out what that would mean. I went to graduate school for a while and studied philosophy, and tried to figure out what that would mean. Basically, I tried to get myself into a place.

“Ultimately, it was the musicians in the Chicago scene that gave me my vocation by way of their encouragement and their recommendation that I keep at it.”

In 1995, at age 27, he recorded “Close Your Eyes” on Blue Note. It was the first of 10 albums, all of which have earned Grammy nominations. He won the award for 2009's “Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman.”

“The Grammy situation has been very kind to me,” Elling said. “My hope is it's a reflection of the quality control that I try to maintain with my work.”

At his Lied gig, Lincoln jazz vocalist Jackie Allen will open for him. Allen's husband, Hans Sturm, University of Nebraska-Lincoln double bass professor, will perform in Elling's band. Elling and Allen know each other from their days on the Chicago scene.

“We used to do wedding dates together,” Elling said of Allen. “She's a marvelous singer, a beautiful person and a very, bright and creative person.”