Vocal adventurer wants to make friends for jazz

The death two months ago of the majestic Abbey Lincoln was one of the last nails in the coffin of the generation of great jazz singers that included Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. Their legacy, however, is still alive and well. Kurt Elling is seeing to that.
A vocal adventurer, expanding the jazz singer’s options, Elling is just as aware of keeping alight the flame of those who have gone before. ”I just hope that the stuff that I do is ‘in the family’ and continues to makes friends for jazz,” he says.

There were young Billie and late Billie, young Sinatra and late Sinatra. Elling, 42, also has evolved.

”I know a lot more about music, now,” he says. ”I know a lot more about how to manage space and time; a lot more about when it should be on me and when it should be on somebody else in the band. Relaxing more: letting a given idea develop over time, rather than just casting about and hoping for the best.

”It’s also being mature enough to not rush things and … tell the whole story in the first paragraph and trusting your instincts a lot more. It’s just like maturity in a friendship or in love-making or in any kind of conversation: you don’t have to show everything that you know in the first couple of minutes.”

Elling also feels he has improved at engaging the audience – in conjunction with his quartet, based, as ever, around the pianist Laurence Hobgood, and now with saxophonist Bob Sheppard, bassist Harish Raghavan and drummer Ulysses Owens.

”I think that we can present some pretty challenging stuff to people in a way that I hope is endearing; challenging in a way that moves them emotionally and isn’t just an exercise in intellectualism,” he says.

Continuing to experiment would seem basic for any artist, yet many settle for safety. Elling has expanded jazz singing in the same way that Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan and Betty Carter did before him.

”I’m at the age now that Sinatra was when he was doing some of his greatest work with the Basie band,” he says, ”and I’m still trying to establish myself out there and make sure that people know what I’m about.”

He is inspired by the fact that, among the surviving greats, the lyricist Jon Hendricks still writes every day and the frail Mark Murphy still pushes the envelope when he performs.

”Here he is in an assisted-living facility and when he goes out he’s still incorrigibly unique and irascible, and God bless him for it, because he’s paid the real price for being an individualist,” Elling says. ”I respect that, I love that and I want to support that through the work that I do.”