Kurt Elling: Don't Measure the Limbs

R.J. DeLuke By

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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


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