The Gate’s Wide Open: A Conversation with Kurt Elling

Mike Ragogna: Let’s talk about your Don Was-produced album The Gate. It covers a lot of territory, what was the process like putting it together?
Kurt Elling: I had a number of compositions in mind that I wanted to get to. Don approached me a couple of years ago about wanting to work in a general way, wanting to work on anything I had going. We kept in touch over the years and when it was time to do this record, I knew he was the right man for the job. Thankfully, he made some room in his schedule for it. It was just great, it was one of the most fulfilling and kindest times I’ve ever had in the studio. That was thanks to, in large measure, Don’s participation.

MR: Did you pick out the repertoire or was it a group effort?

KE: I picked out ninety percent of it. Laurence Hobgood–my great collaborator–came across a couple of ideas, but it was basically my work on that end. Then, Laurence and I wrote the arrangements, Don coming on board to really support and help us bring to full fruition what we had in mind.

MR: Is that the approach you take with every album?

KE: Yeah, I’ve got what I think are pretty good ideas, and I like to follow through on what gets whispered into my ear by the muse.

MR: Can you give us the story of your getting signed to Blue Note in 1995?

KE: I was very hungry to put a record out…when you’re young and foolish, you have a lot of energy, you think that now is the right time. I didn’t really have a label deal, I had raised some money from supporters in the Chicago area. I then went into the studio and laid down nine tunes with my friend Laurence Hobgood and some great Chicago musicians so at least I would have something to sell. A friend of mine said that I should send it out to his friend in LA and he would help me get something around. He heard it and got very excited, and he definitely wanted to send it around. He sent it to a bunch of places, one of the places was Blue Note, which, at the time, was headed up by the great Bruce Lundvall. So, I was waking up on a Wednesday morning after a gig someplace, and I got a phone call about ten in the morning. “Is this Kurt Elling?” I said, “Yes it is.” He said, “This is Bruce Lundvall from Blue Note Records, I have your record playing in my car!” He held out his phone and there it was. He said, “I wanna sign you., have you signed with anybody else?” I said, “No.” “I want to come out to Chicago and hear you,” he said. So, within about a month of my finishing the recording, we had it set out, then about three months later I was signed to Blue Note just from the quality of it. They liked that record and that’s what they put out. We got a Grammy Nomination from that.

MR: You have like nine Grammy nominations now?

KE: I don’t know, nine sounds like a good number.

MR: You also got a Grammy nomination for your second album on your current label, Concord Records. You have a few projects on that label.

KE: Yup.

MR: Were you influenced by Chet Baker?

KE: Well, sure man. I’ve tried to pay attention to all the great jazz singers and come to my own opinion about what made them great. I pay attention to the history of musicians. Chet is certainly one of several outstanding who have been singers in jazz’s brief history.

MR: And there’s Mark Murphy.

KE: Yeah, Mark Murphy, Jon Hendricks, Joe Williams. Obviously, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald come into play. There is a shortish history, but a significant one, of jazz singers. I’ve tried to cop the best I could from each of them.

MR: Are you curious about what writers think when they hear your versions of their songs?

KE: Well, I would sure love to hear about Stevie Wonder at any time about anything, as long as he wasn’t mad at me about something. Stevie is obviously a hugely influential artist across all genres…a great and very influential composer. He is just a profound spirit gift to the world. I would love to hear from Stevie.

MR: Do you have any interesting stories about the King Crimson song you covered?

KE: “Matte Kudasai” is the Japanese phrase for “please wait.” There is an indeterminate poetic flavor about that composition that has always stayed with and been relevant to me. You can’t really pin down the vibe of it. Similarly, I wasn’t able to pin down what I wanted to do with the piece. Thankfully, I had John Patitucci and Terreon Gully on board, and my good friend Laurence Hobgood. We were in the studio and they said, “What do you wanna do with this?” I said, “Well I’m not really sure. This is what it’s about, this is how I feel about it, but you’re really the experts at your instruments and you’re great composers. I hired you so you could bring yourselves to the table as composers, so what do you think?” John looked at the page for a while, thought about what we talked about, and said, “Okay, let’s try this. Let’s roll some tape.” He just started and Terreon joined him. Everybody else fell into that arrangement with him. We never really rehearsed it, it just came out the way it came out. I can’t even tell you how pleased I am with it.

MR: You have a song called “Come Run To Me” that you dedicated to your daughter Luiza. How is having a five-year-old little girl in your life?

KE: It’s great. I’m a much happier person because she is around. She is growing all the time. She’s full of love, joy, songs, and music. She hasn’t discovered what a flake I am yet.

MR: (laughs) Are you predicting she’s going to be in music?

KE: She’s going to do whatever she feels like doing. I’m going to be proud of her wherever she goes. She’s really smart and she’s a great little dancer and singer. She’s five and she’s going to go the way she goes, and if she’s happy, that’s all I want.

MR: Do you have any advice for new artists?

KE: I think the only relevant advice anybody could say is that, when you fall in love with something, give everything you have to it. Be smarter and more disciplined and creative and fastidious about becoming a jazz person and relevant artist. Give it all you have so you’re the smartest, most dedicated person in the room. If you do that, then you figure out all the particular answers you need to figure out.

MR: What does the future bring?

KE: We put the record out in February, we’ll do a lot of touring throughout the second half of the winter and into the spring and summer. I’m writing a larger piece for the stage–that is to say a theatrical piece that involves living, breathing jazz musicians doing what jazz musicians do and that is improvising in response to an ever-evolving plot line that’s taking up a lot of time. I’ve got some collaborations coming up in the next few months that will be very challenging for me. I’m just trying to keep the ball in the air in this very sociopolitical economic climate.

MR: That’s another thing. Is there anything in the papers or headlines that’s bugging you?

KE: I can’t think of anything that is in the papers that isn’t bugging me. (laughs) We’re in a very interesting and strange time right now. I just hope we can pull it together and treat each other like decent citizens again.

MR: Amen. Thanks for so much for spending time with us.