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Interviews

Kurt Elling: Don't Measure the Limbs

By Published: October 8, 2003

"Wouldn't you agree that it's the jazz musician's responsibility to try to play the new thing? For me, that's the hallmark of the sound, to try to play that which has not been played before," says Elling. "So, I think that given the warm sonic environment that we've created, that it creates a situation where more of the people are going to be more accepting of the more challenging material."

The new music showcases Elling as a lyricist, but the messages are usually soft and subtle. There are no up tempo "rants" on the new recording. The most in-your-face tune is one which the group has performed live for a while, Coltrane's "Resolution" from A Love Supreme. It's not as electrifying as the live version (few studio works are), but it's an excellent example of Elling working in concert with Hobgood, bassist Rob Amster and drummer Frank Parker as a band. Hobgood, as always, is masterful on the ivories. The piece cooks.

Other songs include Hancock's "A Secret I," Zawinul's "Time to Say Goodbye," Watson's "A Hidden Jewel," and Mintzer's "All is Quiet."

"This particular record is very important to me, personally. I think that it will be important to me professionally as well. It's nice to get up and just sing nice songs. It can be very fulfilling for a time. In my live shows I like to intersperse something that's perfectly palatable, that's slow-pitch softball. So that the audience can just swing, hit the ball, and hit it out of the park. Because you need to give people some brain rest as well," says Elling. "You don't want to just inundate them with: 'then I thought about this, and then I thought about that.' That's a drag. Then you're just showing off. You want to engage people in such a way that they take something real away from the experience."

But for Elling, it's important that he continue to develop. It's vital that he follows his vision, and he feels an artist can bring the audience along, that conservative is not everything people want, even though he loves the old standards, and will continue to use them.

"I love that, and all the stuff on Flirting With Twilight was exactly that. But it was presented in a much more complex and sonically enriched environment. That's what interests me. We're jazz musicians. We're the educated ones. Let's do it. Don't pull back.

"We always have hope. I don't think that this record is exclusive or off-putting. I don't think that it's a disservice to itself. It's not simplistic, or simplified. It is, I hope to say, artless. It has the simplicity of gesture, the simplicity of intention. It's a very direct record, emotionally. So in those ways, I think that it has the chance of engaging a much broader audience. And I know that when people hear us live, our numbers go way up in terms of the people we are able to engage in an emotional way, which is always the first gateway to intellectual acceptance of a new sound."

Elling didn't shut himself off and crank out all the lyrics for Man in the Air, his sixth on Blue Note. Some were written as far back as 1996 and 1997, he said.

"I started with some specific pieces. 'A Secret I' and 'The More I Have You' and knew I had a certain sound in my head. It included Stefon soloing on 'A Secret I.' So when I was talking with Laurence, we said, 'OK, let's get Stefon.' And the more we talked about things, I said, 'I've got all these lyrics. Let me write a couple of more for this and then let's see how all this fits together, and we'll just start. Because I want to get this stuff out into the world. I've waited around long enough for some of these things."

"So it was pretty organic. I guess the opposite end of the extreme would be, 'It's time to make a record. Let's get a list out of all the possible tunes that we want to do given X concept.' In this case, the sonic concept came first, and then I already had a body of work that was going to work nicely with the sonic concept."

The writing of the words comes after an investigation of a particular piece of music that Elling finds attractive. These songs were not written with lyrics in mind, so there is at times a bit of a wrestling match that must go on to find out if the song is workable.

"There is a usually path and that is, first of all, to be immersed in the music," he explains. "Listening to things and having them in your mind. And small little bits of things will sometimes begin to attach themselves to different pieces of music. So you hurry and write those down. Then you live with it a little bit more and see if your inspiration is such that it points in a genuine direction. A definitive direction. And then live with it a little bit longer to see if it's actually possible to write a lyric over such-and-such a melody. Is it too complicated? Is it going to be, 'This is impossible I can't do it.' Or is it going to be, 'OK. Maybe I can finagle that one part.' You explore more, and you do a transcription, and you explore further. Then comes the writing dedication.



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