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Interviews

Kurt Elling: Don't Measure the Limbs

By Published: October 8, 2003

"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 gift—the flexibility of the voice, the rich tones, the strength to negotiate complex technical turns that can put into practice what his fertile imagination calls for—was 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.

"That's a very intense musical environment and very, very rewarding if you're there with other gifted people. That really served to feed the blooming of my love for music and that communication throughout my growing up. It really taught me how to sing in a lot of ways, and trained my voice to do what was called for. Now the difference is I'm the composer, in the moment, in collaboration with these other musicians on stage. In a way, you need to be just as self-effacing, because everything that you do, you want it to be in the service of the communication of the music."

Elling got into jazz more when he went to college in Minnesota and heard stuff other students were listening to, like Dexter Gordon and Herbie Hancock. He later attended the University of Chicago for Divinity School.

"When I was in college, (jazz) really started to call to me. I started to sit in right away. Over time, I was completely drawn in. I went to graduate school for the philosophy of religion by day, and was sitting in, in clubs at night. Ultimately, the balances just balanced themselves in the direction of the music. I haven't really left the philosophical subject matter behind, as such. But I'm definitely using different tools to explore those themes and those ideas. It's infinitely more suitable, for me, than being an academic."

As he continued to listen, singer Mark Murphy became a big influence.

"Through Mark, I learned about Jon Hendricks and the whole Lambert, Hendricks & Ross thing. Through him I learned about Jack Kerouac. Through him I learned what it means to have digested the wealth of jazz singing information which has preceded one and distill that information into something that is so personal and individual a statement that it truly belongs to you and is an instantly recognizable sound, such as Mark has. That's the greatest gift he's shown me, that it is a viable option to be yourself as an artist and to have done all the homework it takes to have digested this wealth of information which has preceded you. That's what I continue to try to do."

Betty Carter, Joe Williams, Chet Baker, Sheila Jordan, Frank Sinatra, Al Jarreau, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett and Eddie Jefferson have all influenced Elling as he developed. So did musicians like Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter, but his hard-core influences came from Chicago. "I would say that among instrumentalists the people that have shown me how to be a jazz musician have been people I've been able to spend time with in Chicago. Von Freeman. Eddie Johnson. Ed Peterson. Cats who I've praised in my work. So many cats here on the scene."

"I've been very richly blessed to be able to meet and get into correspondence with some of the cats in New York and some of the original links in the chain. Benny Golson and I exchange notes every once in a while and I love that. Marian McPartland has been very generous with me. A lot of the cats who are on the scene now as working players, Essiet Essiet and Jeff Watts and Bob Mintzer and all the Yellowjackets cats. Charlie Haden. You get to meet people and have a positive interaction with people who are so gifted and have done the homework and who listen to you and say, 'All right, I'll give this kid a shot.' And they check it out and there's a certain amount of mutual respect. That's what you want. You want to be one of the cats and you want to pull it together in such a way that what you're playing is something that is good, solid, respectable work."



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