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Kurt Elling: Don't Measure the Limbs

By Published: October 8, 2003

Not to be lost here (or on any of the five other outstanding CDs) is the association with Hobgood, a pianist of virtuoso abilities and first-rate musicianship. Collaborations such as this are not common anymore, and the way this one has moved along, it could well become one for the ages.

"His thing is essential to the sound," explains Elling. "It's been a real gift, and it will continue to be as long as we are given to each other in this creative way. To have his expertise and his brainpower. It's a gift for both of us, because we give to each other. He has such an intense gift, that sometimes it needs to be simplified a little bit. Like, 'OK, man. The audience is over here.' And I need to be stretched and expanded in ways that make my thing more intelligent and complicated. We continue to meet in a middle ground that is comfortable for both of us and that is mutually productive, then it's definitely worth doing and worth staying with."

Hobgood agrees. "Kurt and I balance each other well because we're really very different in a lot of ways," he told All About Jazz previously. "The specific strengths we bring to the music are very different. If we were good at the same stuff, it would be less of a potential ballooning effect."

"His ability with words, and his knowledge from his study of philosophy and religion, it's an awesome thing that he's got there. His knowledge of poetry. His knowledge of important prose works. He's just an incredibly brilliant, well-read young guy who's able to funnel all that into this talent that he has. We've always had a very special connection in that particular way. I think it's just natural," says the pianist.

The pair met in Chicago, both part of an experimental group of musicians who were on the local jazz scene, and became friends and soon musical partners. The group is vital, and its ability to stay together has led to its propensity for functioning on a high level.

"We've come together in a new way, now that Frank Parker has been in the band two years now, maybe a little bit longer. Rob's been with me the longest. He and I were hitting from the time when I was trying to figure out so much stuff and he was so patient with me. We've been patient with each other. And of course Laurence is mightily gifted. To have him on the team is like having an orchestra at your command. The four of us, we are a band," explains the singer. "I think of it as a band and I applaud them in the way that one applauds other members of a band. We're equals. I'm the band leader and things go like I say, but I make sure that there's enough flexibility and room so that everybody gets to have their say. That's important to me. They're great musicians and they need to be heard."

Nonetheless, Elling said some critics feel that he acts as though the music is about him. That is an inaccuracy, even though the performing arts requires a degree of ego and is folly without strong confidence.

"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.

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