Living Organism: Don Was on working with Kurt Elling

Better known as a stellar rock producer, Don Was talks to Peter Quinn about working with Elling
“In all areas of music, the thing I hold at a premium is truth in the vocal — not stylistically conscious, not technically conscious, but just delivering every line from the heart. When I first heard Kurt Elling I was driving through Los Angeles, listening to one of the public stations, and they played ‘Not While I’m Around’ from Flirting With Twillight. It was so bold, man, that I had to pull over and wait to see what it was. It’s a staggering performance, one of the greatest vocals I’ve heard, in any style of music. I got that album immediately and wore it out, which is hard to do with a digital file.

What I discovered as producer of The Gate is that Kurt and Laurence together form this kind of living organism that is rapidly evolving over time. The way they work off each other is really unique, and magnificent. They’re very well-rounded, well-read guys, but when they’re playing they’re in the moment. You don’t hear thinking and calculating going on. You hear guys who are hitting the truth of the song. It’s coming from a very real, inspired place. It sounds effortless, it’s got a flow to it. I think they hit a new plateau with this record.

If you really dig into it you’re going to hear Kurt Elling do things that I’ve never heard anybody do, that defy categorisation. As we were recording ‘Blue In Green’ I thought, this is a radical departure, this is something very, very new if you’re going to call this jazz singing. He’s an amazing interpreter, and I love the fact that he doesn’t throw a syllable away. Every phrase is infused with the meaning of the song.”

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This is a related sidebar to Peter Quinn’s March 2011 Jazzwise cover story, Come Running to Me. See also the sidebar, Spirits from Above: Jon Hendricks on Kurt Elling.