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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


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