Perfect Present — Kurt Elling on Being in the Moment

Kurt Elling is a hard taskmaster — hard on himself and on his audiences.
The Grammy award-winning vocalist has made a rigorous study of the great jazz singers and strives for total engagement with music through improvisation and spontaneity. He has mastered scatting, singing and writing vocalese lyrics for jazz standards and current repertoire. He can sing a beautiful ballad and he knows how to touch people’s hearts. His lyrics are sensitive and intelligent.

Elling will be a big drawcard at Wangaratta Jazz, having built a strong Australian following since his first appearance at the festival in 1998.

He clearly has the discipline as well as the gift of ingenuity with which he says jazz musicians are born. But for him the key to experiencing music, as performer or audience member, is to be “fully present.”

“When one is fully present, one isn’t worried about other concerns,” Elling says by phone from his base in Chicago.

“I find it annoying (at my concerts) when people come in and are taking pictures or recording the event on their little iPods or whatever it is. If they are not fully present, they are conscious that they are engaging something they want to enjoy later. And that means they are not enjoying the gift we are trying to give them right now. It’s a distraction.”

Elling believes the onslaught of information and experience can create too many distractions in life.

“One has to make a conscious decision to shut that down much of the time, to not be overwhelmed by the internet, television, movies and other input — much of it inane, a bit degrading and the worst of human possibilities. You’ve got to turn that stuff off, turn your phone off sometimes and really listen to your heart.”

In his appreciation of others’ music, the vocalist is equally demanding.

“I have to work when I go out to a jazz concert. You really need to focus. You need to get in there and wrestle with your concepts. The moments are fleeting, but the experience is so rewarding because the exchange is so pure.

“I do ask a lot of my audiences, whether they’re hearing something the first time or something they like and want to hear again,” Elling says.

“I’m an artist in a difficult and challenging genre. I don’t want anybody to be put off by the level of difficulty or challenge, but I trust my audiences to give it their best shot, and by and large I get the impression that people are having a good experience.”

Elling says music can transcend language differences.

“I travel about 200 nights a year and over half those nights I’m in countries where people don’t speak English. I’m doing the same material and I don’t think it keeps people from having a good time. They take what they can from it.”

Elling says music can remind people that there’s more than just the everyday grit and struggle and “that we have transcended possibilities.”

“One lives in music, one forgets about time and one’s concerns, one forgets oneself. And that is one of the definitions of happiness. You are no longer self-conscious, insecure about your insecurities or feeling regret or any specific thing other than elation. You’re not looking at your watch, you’re not looking at your past or your future. You’re simply happy.”

At Wangaratta, Elling — joined by longtime collaborator Laurence Hopgood on piano, Harish Raghavan on bass and Ulysses Owens on drums, and featuring Bob Sheppard on tenor sax — will treat audiences to a preview of songs from his coming studio album as well the Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane material he has interpreted for some time.

“The new record will be called The Gate and will feature John Patitucci (bass) and Terreon Gully (drums) as our rhythm section, Chicago guitarist John McLean [and drummer Kobie Watkins]. I’ve been very excited about what we’ve been getting there. That’ll definitely be a very different thing than much of the music that we’ve been playing in the last few years,” Elling says.