Singer Elling: “Powerful poetic spirt”

Every song jazz vocalist Kurt Elling hears is a potential addition to his kit-bag of covers.
“I think you can’t avoid that as an artist,” said the Chicago-based singer who is about to release The Gate, maybe his most freewheeling set of covers. It’s mostly pop material from King Crimson to Stevie Wonder.

“Instinctively, when you hear something, you start to think of how you might sing it. It’s only natural.”

The Gate’s titles include The Beatles’ Norwegian Wood, King Crimson’s Matte Kudasai, Earth, Wind & Fire’s After the Love Has Gone, Stevie Wonder’s Golden Lady and Joe Jackson’s Steppin’ Out.

It’s a veritable baby boomer’s desert-island collection.

“A boomer I am not,” said the 43-year-old Elling. “But many of these songs were on in the house when I was growing up. They are echoes of my childhood to some degree.”

Elling’s song arsenal contains a few pop covers — The Guess Who’s Undun and Sting’s Oh My God, for example.

Usually, though, he goes for interpreting standards or adapting contemporary jazz material by the likes of Pat Metheny and Michael Franks. The new album does feature jazz pieces of Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, but the emphasis is clearly on pop.

Elling said he was inspired by the crossover excursions of jazz-fusion guitarist John Scofield. “I was aiming for the funky style Scofield brings to his albums.”

The choice of material wasn’t intentional.

“I didn’t have a master plan to do pop songs,” he said. “It’s normally a pretty organic process.”

But the approach might be partly a reflection of the talents of producer Don Was, who is known mostly for his work with The Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt and Bob Dylan.

Elling said Was came to him, not the other way around.

“He was on the road with a revival of Was Not Was and said he’d been listening to a couple of my albums. On his way through Chicago he looked me up.”

Elling has quickly risen to the highest ranks of the world’s jazz vocalists. Since breaking onto the scene with his first album, Close Your Eyes, in 1995, Elling has been nominated for a Grammy Award for all eight of his albums up to now, capping it off with the jazz vocalist Grammy in 2009 for the Concord album, Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman.

Technically a baritone, Elling has a four-octave range that allows him to tackle most of the jazz repertory with ease. In addition to singing standards, he is a gifted vocalese artist, in which he improvises lyrics or vocal effects over instrumental solos. Often, these forays will include literary references to Pablo Neruda, Marcel Proust and other writers.

The late American poet Robert Creeley once observed Elling’s performances are infused with a “powerful poetic spirit.”