Kurt Elling: Don't Measure the Limbs
"It's kind of strange. I get the feeling sometimes that there are critics who believe that what I'm about has something very powerful to say about my ego, specifically. Or they're very turned off by my delivery of music. I'm not really sure what exactly it is, except that it has echoes of experiences that I had in adolescence, where I was just trying to be real and do my thing and be true to whatever dream or vision that I had. My following through on that vision in and of itself was enough to turn people off, if only because I was so strong about my discipline. I was so strong about my intention of accomplishing X. I still believe there are people who are challenged by what I'm about. That will probably be the case throughout my career. I accept that, though I think it's ironic, because everything I try to do, I try to do as a service of the music and I try to do as a service of an audience.
"If you are presenting more challenging music, you are obliged to help the audience hear it, either by gesture or by eye contact or by a certain performance aspect. I think of that simply as an extension of the responsibilities I carry as a performing artist. As my skills in that department develop over time, I hope that more people will understand that I don't really have any choice but to do this. I don't really have any choice but to be this. I don't mean to offend anybody, I'm just trying to do what I do."
Elling won't lose sleep, however. "It's a perfect irony, because here I am doing everything I can to be a servant and that pisses people off. Nothing I can do about it."
Maybe it's the fast rise that shocks some critics. Elling paid his dues playing clubs in Chicago, including the famous Green Mill, honing his thing. But as that started to develop, the jump to Blue Note was swift. A demo tape was made and it took only about six weeks before it was accepted. It ended up in the hands of Blue Note's Bruce Lundvall , the story goes. Listening to it in his car, he pulled over and called Elling right away, not wanting to risk losing the artist.
"Then it ended up that they wanted to issue that record we'd made, which was technically a demo," said Hobgood. "It needed a little more time, so we went back into the studio and did four more cuts and that was Close Your Eyes, that was the first Kurt record."
Elling wasn't surprised by the quick hit.
"I was surprised that it was Blue Note. I wasn't surprised that somebody would be interested. I wasn't surprised that it would happen so quickly, because at the time there were even fewer up-and-coming male singers than there are now. I knew that I had something unique. I was surprised that they put the demo out. I was surprised they didn't assign me a producer or make me change more things. I'm a pretty headstrong guy. Everything I do, yes, is in service to the music, but I know what I have. I have a very strong sense of what can be given through me. I knew there was a gap in the industry for a male jazz singer and I knew, at the same time, I had something that would have been unique even in a more crowded circumstance and would have been viable. I'll go toe to toe with anybody. I believe it. So it wasn't much of a surprise."
That giftthe flexibility of the voice, the rich tones, the strength to negotiate complex technical turns that can put into practice what his fertile imagination calls forwas developed as Elling, the son of a church musician, sang in choirs growing up and later got involved in classical choral groups.
"I was in choirs from the time I was in second or third grade. All the way through college. We were given instruments. I played the violin for a while and French horn. It was all straight music. I was peripherally aware of Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bennett and Sarah Vaughan," Elling notes.
"In choral work, the composers can be very demanding of the choir. It's a great proving ground and it's a great developmental course of vocal study on its own. To get that level of music in your mind and into your physical apparatus is a big challenge and it takes years of study to do it. If you're singing Maurice Durufle or if you're singing Phillip Glass or 12th century stuff, you're doing a survey of the history of music. That means the challenges and the sounds that go along with that. And sometimes there will be extremely vivid and subtle passages and you have to learn how to sing those passages in such a way. It's not about you. You have to be so focused on the sound that you're giving yourself over entirely to the creation of sound, in collaboration with these other people.