Vocalist Kurt Elling explores the wide world of jazz — with a twist

Of all the exotic locales he could be in, has been in, will be in again quite soon, this one seems a little less so.
In fact, take a look at Kurt Elling's website, and not only are the jazz vocalist's travels well-documented in the “Touring” section — Macerata, Italy; Ostrow Wielkopolski, Poland; Bratislava, Slovakia; Dublin, Ireland; Berlin, Germany — but also in a gallery titled “Latest view from my hotel windows,” which features, thanks to his 200-or-so date annual performance schedule, an ever-changing landscape.

So while the odds are good that Elling may in fact be in transit at any particular point in time, his current whereabouts as he obliges a phone interview certainly lacks the sexiness of, well, let's go with anywhere else.

“Newark,” he says, of the bustling airport he's now attempting to speak over.

Hopefully it will be something of an improvement when the Chicago-born, New York-based artist arrives in Calgary for a Friday night concert at the gorgeous Jack Singer Concert Hall. He'll be bringing with him a quartet, his rich baritone, and material from his illustrious 20-year career, including songs from his latest Grammy-nominated release 1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project.

The album is his tribute to the songs that were born in or from that Manhattan landmark, which housed and still houses dozens of songwriting, publishing and other music-related businesses. From the 1930s to the '70s it was a virtual factory for popular music, producing some of 20th Century's most enduring and beloved hits.

“Obviously I knew some of the history of the Brill, of the building, and I knew some of the history of many of the songs that came out of there, but it seemed like a great idea to once again bring something into the jazz idiom that hadn't been done before,” says Elling, noting that he passed the place every time he went to his manager's office.

“So I got with some friends who knew a lot more about the building and the history of the music there and started to sift through and see what appealed to me and what I had some ideas for.”

Some of the songs he and his collaborators — most notably longtime musical partner, pianist Laurence Hobgood, whom he's recently parted company with while they each pursue their own things — came up with include: Sam Cooke's You Send Me; the Burt Bacharach-Hal David composition A House Is Not A Home; the Frank Sinatra hit Come Fly With Me; a couple of cuts from the famed tandem of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller; and Gerry Goffin and Carole King's Pleasant Valley Sunday, made famous by the Monkees.

While some of those songs would be familiar to even a casual follower of pop music, the results are anything but. The last track, especially, is a mind-bogglingly weird and wonderful mix of retro jazz, TV and radio samples, and, at the centre, a twisted, Beat-like vocal delivery that would challenge both fans of the famed version and probably confound those who consider themselves jazz purists.

“They're kind of missing the point of jazz, which is to always make new ideas happen,” Elling says of the latter category of listeners before bringing it back to how it pertains to him and his successful career.

“I do my thing, and I try to make new stuff, but there are certainly much more avant-garde flavoured singers that are taking things and pushing them, I think, way past me. Certainly in terms of my own taste, what they're making is often very beautiful.”

Doing his own thing artistically is what Elling says drives him.

While many other jazz vocalists are attempting to cross over into the mainstream with more pop approaches to the music or the tried and true, straight-up standards albums, he's sought to challenge himself and his audience with projects like The Brill Building or his 2011 album with producer Don Was called The Gate or his Grammy-winning '09 album paying tribute to John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, Dedicated To You.

That said, while his approach has certainly worked for him and helped him become who many, including a little paper called the New York Times, consider the “standout male vocalist of our time,” he by no means resents those who have, perhaps, had more success by following a safer path guided by the songbook of standards.

“I hope there's enough room for everybody at the table,” Elling says. “And that if people are investigating the songbook further, they're doing so because it holds an interest to them and that they feel that they can add something to the history of ideas … using the flexibility of those compositions to their greatest advantage.

“I've certainly done my share of working with standards and there's no shame in it by any stretch. For my own sake, I hope that when I do choose things from that arena that I'm doing so because I've got a little twist of something that I can put in it that hasn't been done before.”

The Jack Singer crowd will get a chance to hear that twist, and even contribute to it. Elling admits that while he has a general idea of what his live set list will be, he prefers to read the audience and react accordingly.

So, while the show is billed as being a Brill Building event, depending on those in attendance, he could serve up a healthy dose of those skewed standards or even, maybe preview material from the project he's currently working on, one that will be recorded later this year and released early 2015.

That album? A fitting one.

“It's a project in which I've been gathering compositions from around the world and written them, via arrangement ideas, into the jazz idiom,” says Elling of the collection of predominantly 20th century, mainly European songs called, what else, Passion World.

It suits quite nicely not only his vagabond ways but what he considers his musical philosophy.

“I just try to follow my heart, man, do the stuff that feels good for me.”