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Interviews

Kurt Elling: Don't Measure the Limbs

By Published: October 8, 2003

You just try to have an interesting life. If a door opens, you step through that door and you experiment and you take risks.

Art is not the application of a canon of beauty but what the instinct and the brain can conceive beyond any canon. When we love a woman we don't start measuring her limbs.
—Pablo Picasso

At a time when the music scene in the United States is in a funk, and the recording industry, suffering from limping sales figures, tends to be conservative—particularly in the realm of jazz—it isn't easy to find records on major labels that take a different turn.

Enter Kurt Elling.

Elling is a singer who has always taken chances in his relatively brief career. His rise to the top of the jazz vocalist heap in that short time, as poll winner and regular Grammy nominee, has been worthy of note. It's remarkable because he takes a lot of chances. Yes, he sings the standard repertoire with style and strength. But he does his own thing and it has garnered him critical praise and a strong following.

At a time when it seems like nearly everyone is releasing albums of familiar standards, Elling is poised to release what perhaps, from top to bottom, is his most innovative CD. Man In The Air , produced with his august collaborator and pianist Laurence Hobgood , is a work of art. The compositions are by the likes of Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, John Coltrane, Bobby Watson and Bob Mintzer, but each has a lyric from the mind and pen of Elling. There's also one Elling original and a Hobgood/Elling collaboration.

It may be a bit of a gamble, because art too often these days takes a back seat to things conservative. But Elling is unconcerned. He's confident in his direction and eloquent about his feelings. He knows that as an artist, he must continue to move and grow. The lyrics he has amassed for Man In The Air show more of Elling as dreamer, observer and poet, facets he has showed glimpses of in the past. And it works. Elling has a right to be confident.

"People need a broad variety of possibilities. Since music is endless, and presents an endless number of possibilities, a number of directions to be explored—turns in the road, if you will—it's somebody's responsibility to hit all of them," he says. "There's somebody for every possibility, I guess. I need to make what I need to make. And I have been very, very fortunate that I have been able to do the kind of records that I've done, to be on Blue Note, to have their backing. It's an extraordinary gift, in this day and age, to have such dedicated music industry professionals as the people I get to work with at Blue Note."

Elling has immense vocal chops, a great style on standards and ballads, and the sense of adventure of a tightrope walker. In concert, he's elegant and compelling. The passion he has for his art is apparent. He's got style and flair. He has an ego, but devotes himself to the best expression of the music. His working band, featured on the CD, and augmented by some saxophones and the vibes of Stefon Harris, is a tight working group in which Elling is just another member, even if certain songs take him to the outer limits, feature him as the acrobat. It takes guts and it takes ego to do what he does. He has enough of those qualities, but not in obnoxious overabundance.

Art is the sex of the imagination.
—George Jean Nathan

"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.



"As a writer, the first part of the inspiration is easy enough. 'I want to write about X.' But then to actually sit down and do it is another bag entirely. The only real difference is you don't really choose the theme, as a rule. I don't. Words and themes come organically, or in a dream-like way. They decide what they want to be. I didn't know what 'Minuano' was going to be about when I started writing. I just started writing. That's almost always the case."

Elling says his study of philosophy and theology in college comes in handy in his lyric writing, as well as his art in general. "It definitely helps. I always tell students when I do master classes—I'll get a question like, 'How do you think of that stuff.' I say, 'Well, how do you think of anything?' You just try to have an interesting life. If a door opens, you step through that door and you experiment and you take risks.' Read. Don't play video games. Engage life. Get everything that you can out of life. It sort of seems like platitudes, but I don't know that there's any other path. You have to give yourself the gift of a more complex human experience. And then you have something to say when you step up."

He notes that people who have heard the music so far like it, and he hopes that bodes well for its acceptability on the market.

"People are really knocked out by this. I think there might be an opening for such a work of art at this time," he said. "Because it does have an emotional depth. It does speak to issues beyond mere romance or feel-good swinging stuff—not that there's anything wrong with that. With the international climate that we have now and the psychic challenges that people are facing, people need to hear a word. They need to hear something that has depth, that is real, that speaks from somebody's heart. And I think that's included in what we've made."

Art need no longer be an account of past sensations. It can become the direct organization of more highly evolved sensations. It is a question of producing ourselves, not things that enslave us.
—Guy Dubord

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.

"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."

Life has been your art. You have set yourself to music. Your days are your sonnets.
—Oscar Wilde

Fast rise or not, it took a lot of hard work for Elling to get the wheels in motion. He stayed focused and wasn't afraid to roll up his sleeves and apply some elbow grease.

"It started when I came back to Chicago, to grad school. And then I really started to hit. You take every gig that you can take. You pound the pavement. You take your tape around. You watch people throw it away. You come back the next week and bother them again. There's a lot of battering-ram energy that you have to have, to just believe it so much that you brook no opposition. We did a similar thing in New York and in Los Angeles. We had it set up so we played 25 clubs in 30 days with 20 different rhythm sections. Just bombarded everyone we could bombard with the sound that we could make in order to get the process started. That was after we were signed, so we had the support of Blue Note on that.

"When you're starting out you don't have any choice. Nobody's heard of you. So you need to be heard. That means you need to invest some money and invest the focus and the energy capital in order to get something started. Inertia is really strong, man. As Gwendolyn Brooks said, 'It's much easier to stay at home, the nice beer ready.'"

The fact that singers are currently in vogue and have a potentially bigger commercial market value—for example, John Pizzarelli sells more albums because he croons in addition to playing guitar—is not lost on Elling, but there are a lot of singers out there that haven't made it. There are many regional talents with good chops and style, but breaking into the national scene is a difficult venture, to say the least.

"I play the right instrument. Chicago is an affordable city with a strong scene. I hope to say that I'm over the initial hump of creating a viable touring circuit for myself. The Blue Note albums continue to help and, frankly, I work my ass off not only as an artist, but as a businessman. And you have to be extremely cagey about this stuff. I play the right instrument. I can't underestimate the importance of the fact that I'm a singer. Because that does translate in a way that a saxophone doesn't or a piano doesn't. It's a shame and it's sad, but it is a reality. I wish that the culture would allow itself to be enriched, but there are a host of issues that need to be addressed."

One way Elling hopes to get them addressed is through the Recording Academy, to which he was recently elected vice chairman. It is not a title he plans to put on his resume to collect dust. He plans to get active and promote jazz and other music that doesn't get the proper attention.

"I know that I'm going to learn a lot of things and be challenged in a lot of ways and meet a lot of people and have a lot of conversations. You've got to take that risk. You've got to say, 'Let's see what I can bring to this and what I can take away from this.' And have the thing that I've given be more than what I've taken away.

"The Recording Academy is going to begin to pay more attention to currently non-televised genres and under-served genres, if only because now I'm the vice chair and I'm going to make sure. That was part of my platform, to actually support American music in a visible, positive and truly constructive way. And there's dedication in the academy now for that to happen. We have a new president and we have a new chair and these are people with much more open minds. It's a very hopeful time, from that aspect. I can't promise you the moon, but I can promise that the ship will be turned with as much expediency as a ship of that size can be turned."

This movement is needed more today than ever, perhaps, given the world climate. Elling is not afraid to try and make a difference and help give people more musical choice. For example, he dreads things like the FCC's effort to allow more US media outlets to be controlled by fewer people, which many see as a threat to diversity of opinion at best; at worst, putting control of the dissemination of information into the hands of a tiny, and elite, group.

"The culture is filled with lies at this point. The political culture is just one lie after another. People get inured to that and they stop recognizing lies. And once they start doing it in one area, it's that much easier to jive them in another area; to say, 'this is valuable,' when in fact, it's a pile of crap. That's something that we have to be on the watch for and it's something where jazz musicians have always been on the right side of the fight. We're always about the truest statement that the artist can make, regardless of the outcome. It's a matter of human survival," he states.

Elling is not about forgetting the past, and not about ignoring the basics of music and what made it popular. He just feels that he needs to continue developing. His personal statement—and jazz is nothing if not a personal expression art form—does not lie in one bag.

"I think it's good Dianna Krall is out there hitting. I think it's good there are people who are going to play it straight and play it really well and just keep swinging happening in the public eye. Otherwise there wouldn't be a dialogue. I would only be having a dialogue with dead people. The audience needs to be able to see the great spectrum. There have always been people who have played it straighter. That's part of the jazz scene and it's valuable. It's important that it continue to be there and it doesn't surprise me that, that stuff is more popular than the stuff I do. It's always going to be the case."

So the ever-active Elling pushes on. And with several irons in the fire. He's written shows and has been working on things like a musical play and a movie screenplay. "The ideas are there. You see a door, you walk through it. You take the challenges that are presented right now. When you find the time, you'll get to the other challenges. You'll have that much more to say when you get to them."

"I got a big year. The record comes out July 22. I've got at least one year as vice chair of the Recording Academy right now and that means visiting all 12 chapters at least once this year and volunteering my service to them and supporting the chair. I've got this Four Brothers show coming up [with Mark Murphy, Kevin Mahogany, Elling and Jon Hendricks] that needs to be revised. We're going to have the cats come here to town and have some nice dinners and some good rehearsals. I look forward to that. It's not going to be as extensive as we thought because of the drop in tourism due to the 'war.' Tourism has really dropped off in Europe this summer. We had almost a full month of dates going and we're lucky to have salvaged the seven or eight that we've got.

"I'll be staying over there with my own band in between and after the Four Brothers thing is done. But we get to play Monterey (jazz festival) with Four Brothers and that'll be cool. I haven't played Monterey before and I'm jazzed about that. It's a busy year.'

Thankfully, this thoughtful and thought-provoking artist is allowed to have a busy year. Let fate give him many more.



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