Vocalist Kurt Elling savors chance to share jazz tradition

When I interviewed Kurt Elling, he was en route from New York to Boston on the Amtrak. The phone reception was spotty and the train was noisy, but Elling's message was clear: he is an ambassador for jazz music.
The 44-year-old Chicago native who now calls New York home will be in Appleton Friday to headline Lawrence University's annual Jazz Celebration Weekend. He'll be joined by the Lawrence University Jazz Ensemble for a 7:30 p.m. concert at Lawrence Memorial Chapel.

This is the second run for Elling as he also performed at Jazz Celebration Weekend in 2003; however, since then, the jazz vocalist has watched his star rise in his respective genre. Elling has won the DownBeat Critics Poll Male Vocalist of the Year Award an unprecedented 13 years in a row (2000-2012) and holds the distinction of having each of his first nine albums earn Grammy nominations. His one Grammy win came in 2009.

Elling remains humble about his success.

“I suppose within jazz I'm about as well known as can be but when it comes to the mainstream artists, I'm not even a blip on the screen,” Elling said. “I never expected to be any bigger than that. They play the music they believe in, I play the music I believe in and I'm very fortunate to be able to continue to carry the banner a little bit for jazz.”

So, in other words, he's not Jon Bon Jovi or Taylor Swift big, but Elling need not take a back seat to anyone in jazz circles these days.

His latest album, “1619 Broadway – The Brill Building Project,” saw Elling step into new territory as he tackled songs associated with the legendary Brill Building in Manhattan. At its peak, the Brill Building served as a creative site for more than 160 tenants associated with the pop music industry. Beginning in the mid-'30s, the Brill began housing the efforts of Sammy Cahn, Johnny Mercer, Harry Warren and others. Swing era legends Nat “King” Cole and Duke Ellington also leased space at the building.

Now living in New York, Elling felt it was time to pay homage to the historic aura of the Brill.

“I've passed the Brill pretty often on my way to different business meetings, and sometimes on the way back and forth to gigs, and it struck me that that music hadn't been tapped by a jazz singer as an overall project,” Elling said. “People tackle individual songs, but to make a whole record out of it seemed like an interesting way to reach out to more fans. … The thing that drew me to jazz in the first place was that sense of risk. I think it's important for me, as it is for any jazz musician, to keep reaching out and keep evolving and keep growing. Why just keep making the same stuff all the time?”

On “1619 Broadway – The Brill Building Project,” Elling created new renditions of songs such as Frank Sinatra's “Come Fly With Me,” The Coasters' “Shoppin' for Clothes” and Paul Simon's “American Tune.”

“What's interesting about jazz is it takes any valuable or interesting piece of music that it encounters and transforms it,” Elling said. “You start from wherever you start and the idea is to personalize and individualize music to make everything sound like it's coming from you. That could be an arrangement or by recasting the melody or the overall way you do the process.”

Locals will have a chance to hear Elling's renditions at the LU Chapel on Friday before he turns over the stage to Jazz Celebration Weekend's other headliner, the Maria Schneider Orchestra, which closes the weekend on Saturday night. Like Elling, Schneider, joined by her 17-member orchestra, has numerous credits to her name, including Composer of the Year, Arranger of the Year and Large Jazz Ensemble of the Year awards.

Besides the concerts, Jazz Celebration Weekend also is an opportunity for student musicians to participate in noncompetitive educational clinics and master classes.

“These types of events are always important to connect with people and keep the jazz audience growing and educated,” Elling said. “You never know who you're going to hear out there who's going to really knock your socks off, so it's always a lot of fun.”