When Kurt Elling comes to town

There is always a buzz when Kurt Elling comes to town.
He likes to visit us here in Australia on a regular basis and we are fortunate that he makes the long trip from the United States. Last time he was here, Elling performed with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and this week returns with his quartet to play in Sydney and Melbourne.

There is a certain adaptability to Elling and what he does musically. He has given performances that saw him share the stage with a pianist alone, to string quartets, big bands, and even symphony orchestras all around the world. Each of these ensembles presents unique sound pallets and challenges, or ease of performance for Elling. “There is a big difference between what you do with an orchestra and what you do with a smaller group, at least in terms of your consciousness,” Elling says.

“A big orchestra, it's more like an 18 wheeler; you can turn, but you have to be more careful. Once you put it in gear, it's going to take a whole lot of brakes to cut it off – as opposed to a little sports car driving around, where you can go anywhere you feel like going as quickly as you want to go.”

Elling's quartet consists of some of the best in the jazz business and he works across a broad range of styles and genres. He recently collaborated with classical concert pianist Lang Lang, and has made a recording with Branford Marsalis' band. So how does collaborating with other musicians work – and how does Elling approach these collaborations?

“Artists tend to call one another up because they heard something they like and they want to have for a minute. Branford called me because I've made the records I've made, I've got the sound I've got, and I've got the approach I've got, and he wanted me to bring myself,” Elling says.

“From my standpoint, my goal was to find out what Branford wanted to accomplish and to give whatever I could in service to that vision. And the thing with Lang Lang; it happens that it's a happy collision, because I want to serve their vision, and they've called me because what I already do serves their vision.

“So, it's for me to sing as well as I can in any of the circumstances, to choose interesting notes, to tell the stories, and to be the best version of myself that I can be. That's a real thrill for me, and that's a compliment, and I try to be true to that, and I try to raise myself to the standard of the people who've reached out to me.”

Not only does Elling interpret timeless jazz classics that audiences love and adore, but he pushes the barriers of song material. His album Passion World includes songs by U2 and Björk – and Elling sure knows how to make them his own. He has also interpreted the Beatles Norwegian Wood, and his own interpretations and performances of these works stand in their own right.

“I don't know about what jazz as a movement is doing. It's much easier to talk about whether an individual touch or an individual artist is being successful more or less. But, as Duke Ellington said, there's only two types of music; good music and bad music. And if the idea works, you go to Radiohead, or you go to Prince, or you go to the Zombies – it doesn't really matter what the resource is, but depends on what you do with it, and if you pull off the idea.”

His first recording was on the Blue Note label in 1995 with Close Your Eyes and since then he has made his impact on the jazz world with his unique interpretations of timeless classics such as Come Fly With Me and Nature Boy, and also re-invented the wheel with popular songs on Passion World. When approaching this material, Elling states that the music has to grab him first and foremost before he can work with it. It is then up to him and his fellow musicians, who perform with him on a regular basis, to work out the arrangements.

Elling's own approach to music first comes in the song selection – and the song has to be just right before he ventures into exploring it further. It is quite something to hear Elling re-interpret classics such as Come Fly with Me, and keep them alive after years of performance.

“The key thing that I look for when I'm considering working with material that already exists is: ‘Does it appeal to me emotionally? Is it the kind of thing that I'm going to fall in love with, that I'm going to be happy to perform night after night, for hundreds of nights?'.

“Because, for some number of years, it's very fixed. If it's a particularly successful recording, or outing, you need to be able to pull that stuff out and still make as real on the 200th night as it was for the people on the first night. So the first thing is to really love the material. And the second thing is to work with people who are, oftentimes, much smarter than I am.

“Come Fly With Me is an arrangement my long-time friend Laurence Hobgood came up with. He knew where to put it into a pocket that was going to sound creative and new-sounding, and together we put that out into the world in a way that I hope was enriching.”

Elling is most renowned for his vocalese; setting text of his own or by other poets to the solos of others that he has heard. Elling, when interviewed by Jamie Cullum on BBC Radio 2, explains that vocalese is a “subset of lyric writing and poetry that is unique to the jazz idiom”.

“Vocalese is created in this way: One falls in love with an instrumental recording – a saxophone solo, piano solo, or bass solo. One transcribes the solo. One writes a lyric to fit the contours of that which was improvised for the recording. Then one learns to sing that melody as the new melody for the composition.”

Take, for instance, the vocalese on the Duke Ellington tune I Like the Sunrise from Liberian Suite. Here, Elling sings the song in his own unique way and then adds the words of 13th Century poet Rumi, set to the improvised solo of Chicago saxophone player Von Freeman. The result is a lyrical and poetic interlude to the music that adds more depth and character to the tune, in a way that only Elling could do with his four octave, rich baritone voice and ability to interpret and shape the meaning of words into the music. Vocalese is something that Elling has always included in his music, long before his career and name were established.

“When I was broke and alone, and had nothing to lose, and was very serious about discovering everything I could about jazz, I came upon their recordings. And once I figured out what Jon Hendricks was up to with Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, or what Eddie Jefferson was up to, I said: ‘Oh! They've written these things, and they're singing – well I want to try that!'.

“Before I had even made a demo recording for anybody, I was already trying to figure out what that was. It's from the grace of that time, when I had all those hours to put into it, I started go down the road that I'm on now.”

So where did vocalese emerge and what is its tradition? “Vocalese pre-existed my being around; it was something that happened with the advent of recorded sound. Eddie Jefferson and Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross were pioneers of a new art form.

“It's like describing for your listeners; you take a jazz solo that's an instrumental solo, you transcribe it and then you write a lyric that fits the confines of that solo, and then you learn to sing that solo. They pioneered it, they have a number of years of great success with it but in as much as there were really very few practitioners, there's a lot of open room when it comes to content, and when it comes to the continuous invention of language and of meaning and of what's possible.”

What can audiences expect from Elling's shows in Sydney and Melbourne?

“You're going to hear a hot band, and you're going to hear some of the things that people who followed us in the past want to hear, some favourites.

“But you're also going to hear some things that we haven't yet recorded – that are in progress for projects to come. And surprises, and things I haven't thought of yet.

“I really like to respond to the occasion. And to tailor what I'm doing, especially when I come down to Australia (because it's not as often as I like), and pay attention to what I play from one visit to the next, in order to give fans as much heart and soul and music as I can give them in the time we're given together.”

Kurt Elling and his quartet are performing at Bird's Basement in Melbourne and in Sydney at City Recital Hall.