Kurt Elling, Tommy Smith and All That Jazz

Jazz legends Kurt Elling and Tommy Smith talk psalms, improvisation and why ‘you’ve got to evil it up.’
“Man, if you gotta ask, you ain’t never going to know,” is the answer Louis Armstrong is said to have given when asked what jazz was. Almost 100 years later, in a hotel bar in the center of Glasgow, two men regarded, respectively, as perhaps the best jazz vocalist and saxophonist of their generation, are mulling over the question.

“What’s jazz? That’s a whole ‘nother bag,” says Kurt Elling, the award-winning singer from Chicago. Nominally based in New York, he spends more than two-thirds of the year on the road and is giving a series of concerts in Britain over the next four days. “That’s a netful of questions, brother.”

Mr. Elling really does talk like that, unself-consciously referring to “cats” and prefacing remarks with “Dig this.” But he also talks like this: “Jazz is the ultimate syncretic art form. It is informed, improvisational work that is interactive, that is not slipshod, that has to have a sense of architectural integrity. And for that to happen you have to be, as much as you can be, a master of your instrument.”

This analytical sophistication may have something to do with the fact that he was studying philosophy and divinity when he discovered jazz, just as the remarkable precision of his pitch and phrasing may owe something to his early musical training in sacred choral music.

Tommy Smith, the saxophonist who directs the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, with which Mr. Elling is performing, advances another theory. The roots of jazz, he suggests, may lie in part in the call-and-response Gaelic Psalms of the Scottish Hebrides. “It was the Highland Clearances and the exodus from Ireland that sent that music to America. That’s not my idea,” he adds. “It’s from Willie Ruff, who was Miles Davis’s bassist. He went to Lewis and recorded all this stuff and when he took it home to black Gospel churches, they thought it was their music.”

Mr. Elling roars with laughter. “Why not? Coulda been.” Then, more seriously, he adds, “Where do I look this up? Ruff? R. U. Double F, right?”

The exchange offers an echo of the balance both men strike in their music, walking a narrow line between the freewheeling exuberance that most listeners think of as the characteristic quality of jazz, and a rigorous, theoretical understanding of the structures that underpin the music.

Watching Professor Smith (after many years, he persuaded the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama to offer a jazz course, which he now leads) rehearse with the SNJO in the academy’s Havergal Room on Wednesday afternoon, I’m given an object lesson in the care necessary to produce spontaneity with a big band. “‘Nature Boy,’ bar 4, first beat—no, the numbering’s all wrong there,” he says, inspecting a trombonist’s manuscript. “So it’s 3, 4, 1, 2; two beats into bar 5, sforzando, crescendo.”

That evening, during a live radio performance, Mr. Elling describes the difference between singing with a small band, where the direction can be fairly easily controlled, and performing with an orchestra by comparing the latter with a train. “You can dance about a bit on it, but it’s going where it’s going to go.”

“The thing about Kurt,” Mr. Smith says, “is that, unlike a lot of singers who attempt scat but just sing random lines or the blues scale or something, he really understands every single chord change, every single possibility for improvisation. And to do that with the voice…I mean, with an instrument, when you press a key, you can be pretty sure which note is going to come out.”

This versatility is evident on Mr. Elling’s latest album, “The Gate,” his first since the Grammy award-winning “Dedicated to You,” on which he artfully transforms pop standards from artists as diverse as The Beatles and King Crimson. Mr. Smith’s new release, “Karma,” is, if anything, more eclectic still, gleefully synthesizing elements of Scottish folk music and thrash metal.

But at Thursday’s rehearsal, as Mr. Elling takes the band through an adaptation of an arrangement of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” which Benny Carter wrote for Sarah Vaughn, modernity is not what he wants. His thorough knowledge of the history of jazz, and his painstaking attempts to produce the effects he wants, are all too evident.

After the first run-through, he confines himself to the declaration: “Well, that swings.” He congratulates Chris Grieve, who transcribed (and transposed) the piece, then begins to address the fine details of the sound he’s looking for. He considers, and abandons, the idea of adding an extra quaver to a bar. He asks for a ritardando to be held a moment. “Can I have just the woodwind from two bars before E?” he asks, and the saxophones run through the section again.

“OK, good,” he says. “This lick is like a 1956 Cadillac straight off the assembly line, with the neon lights bouncing off the chrome. What sounds like too much here, in this room, when you’re a foot or two away from it, trust me, it won’t be too much for the audience in the hall. It’s a period piece. It can’t have any ‘flat’ to it. It’s all ‘Bam!'”

The band plays again, and Elling, who until now has been relatively restrained, confining himself to conventional conducting and a little excitable arm-waving, begins to frug away, bumping and grinding like a showgirl.

“Much better,” he says. “The thing is that the modern world is so far away from this,” he tells the musicians. “We can’t help it, we just are, you know, healthy living, well-behaved…This isn’t that. This is scotch and steaks, and not doing what you’re supposed to. This is like the Christina Aguilera of its day, doing everything completely wrong. You’ve got to evil it up.”

Mr. Smith and the other musicians fall about laughing at this. But there must be something to it. By the end of the third attempt at the piece, it does indeed sound more redolent of the 1950s, as if the Big Band has somehow gotten a little bit bigger. “Cool,” says Mr. Smith. “Shall we take a break?”