Is Kurt Elling, like, (a) a way-out cat who has “goofed to wig city,” (b) some space cadet marooned in the outer reaches of the hiposphere, or (c) a worthy young stud who went subterraneous down the rabbit hole and into a musical and philosophical universe that’s entirely his own? Planet Elling sounds like jazz but thinks like theology. For all of his hipster irreverence, Elling’s art is ultimately about worship, fluctuating between homage to hip-swinging chicks (as in both “Tanya-Jean” and “It’s Just a Thing,” whose heroine is even named “The Swing”), cool colossi (like “A Prayer for Mr. [Miles] Davis”), and the Creator Himself.
Elling often starts his sets, and albums, with something familiar, a standard at either medium or slow tempo, then adds something original to it. His Birdland set May 2 (launching a “tour” across Manhattan advertised as “30 dates in 40 days,” including five Wednesdays at the Izzy Bar and climaxing at the Knitting Factory on June 17) began with “My Foolish Heart,” with a poetry recitation interpolated, while his newly released second album, The Messenger, opens with a treatment of “Nature Boy” that launches into a wild scat.
Those who have eyes to dig Elling should start with a single, salient factoid: this dudeski is equally steeped in modern jazz and traditional religion. The Chicago-reared Elling was, in fact, a graduate student at that city’s Divinity School when he discovered jazz in general and singer-sage Mark Murphy in particular. Elling’s obvious points of departure are Murphy’s two Kerouac albums, from which Elling glommed onto “Ballad of the Sad Young Men” and his Lord Buckley monologue.
Where Murphy combined Beat poetry with Beat music, Elling is even more committed to the umcompromisingly eclectic. He delves deeper than his hipster forebear into vocalese, the trick of pinning lyrics to a well-known recorded solo. Most of this material derives from the Miles-Wayne-Herbie axis, such as Hancock’s “Chan’s Song,” which kicked off the first Izzy Bar set, Shorter’s “Nightdreamer” (a not-yet recorded work on which Elling spins an elaborate web of surrealistic imagery), “Delores” (which sings both of babes and Chi-town tenor legend Von Freeman, who Elling live called “the great squealing rabbi”), and “gingerbread Boy” (a straight wordless scat). Appropriately, his ace collaborator-pianist, Laurence Hobgood, is most reminiscent of Hancock back when he spoke like a child.
Kurtski connects the meter of a jazz improvisation to the ebb and flow of modern poetry. Beyond employing Sinatrian long lines to get fresh takes out of standards like “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” at the Birdland set, and Messenger’s “Prelude to a Kiss,” scatting, and vocalese a la Eddie Jefferson, he spontaneously improvises words and melody, approximating the concept and the pentameter of the jazz solo. He calls this latter approach “ranting,” and his most primordially effective example of it is “Endless.” Here, tenorist Ed Petersen blows a phrase at him, and Elling, answers back with a musical word-association test: “Trees…Breasts…Atoms…ICE CREAM!”
Much of the time it’s difficult, and not necessarily worthwhile, to distinguish exactly which technique-ranting, vocalese-ing, reciting- Elling’s using. Even his scats don’t stop at traditional “oop-ya-kool” syllables but incorporate bizarre sonic distortions and the occasional geshray. Elling plays with the ring of words: on a long complicated narrative like “Tanya Jean” you’re not supposed to absorb every line, but rather let the sounds and images wash over you. Other works, like “The Beauty of All Things,” inspired by contemporary theologians, are more hymnlike, while his harmonious duet with Cassandra Wilson on the Zombies’ “Time of the Season” reminds us that a zombie is first and foremost a cocktail.
Each Elling album has at least one totally user-friendly item that newcomers, bereft of a guide map to his admittedly obtuse artistry, can instantly fathom: on Close Your Eyes, it was his irresistible bossa-nova “Never Say Goodbye.” On Messenger, contrastingly, it’s one of his most way-out works, “Just a Thing,” an in-meter monologue that blends hipster slang with Jack Webb monotone (“I drew him a picture/But he couldn’t hear it”) and the hardboiled parody sequence in The Bandwagon. While Elling is definitely out beyond the cutting edge, there’s something quaintly archaic about him at the same time- what other 29-year-old addresses his musicians as “cats”? He looks back to when it was hip to look ahead. Way out and just plain goofy as he often is, at his best Elling makes hepcats of us all.