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The Continuing Evolution of Kurt Elling


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The only limitations on the tradition are the limitations of artists that are currently trying to work it.
"I feel like at this point in my career I don't have to prove that I can do fifteen different things to greater or lesser degrees of expertise."

Kurt Elling is discussing the genesis of his latest record, Flirting With Twilight. "I've made these roller coaster rides every time," says the Chicago-based jazz singer referring to his four Grammy-nominated CDs on the Blue Note label. "Even on This Time, It's Love there were still these elements of the sharp turn, and I wanted to make a Cadillac."

Elling has done exactly that. A beautiful, deeply involving, smartly paced album built around a core of standard ballads, Flirting With Twilight is both Elling's most cohesive musical statement and his most accessible CD yet. For the first time on record, he has set aside the poetic rants, the surreal vocalese excursions and the scatting to focus exclusively on his role as a singer of songs.

As it turns out, as interesting as those other aspects of his art can be, Elling doesn't need them to make a compelling record. He is a superb interpretative singer. Like Frank Sinatra or Johnny Hartman, Elling manages to express love or convey pain without sounding emasculated. He submerges himself into each song's story to such a degree that he is able to paraphrase a lyric without disrupting its conversational flow. His interpretations avoid both the shallowness of irony and the self-absorption of melodrama in search of a genuine connection with the material. On tunes like "Say It," "Easy Living," "Detour Ahead," and a pairing of "I Get Along Without You Very Well" and "Blame It On My Youth," Elling displays an ability, somewhat reminiscent of the late Joe Williams, to locate the emotional core of a lyric. "You should only be choosing stuff that you can really communicate and believe and really present in a way that it feels like it belongs to you," explains Elling. "If you do that, everything else will fall into place. If you really believe it, then it's an expression of how you hear it."

For Kurt Elling, that principle applies not only to lyrics, but to the music as well. "A jazz singer when singing a ballad is still in an area of exploration," explains Elling. "There are new choices to be made that paraphrase a melody in such a way that you don't rob from it, and you still give people what they need to hear, but you still get the pleasure of recreating that melody so that it sounds like it's never been sung before. You want to keep it reasonably simple but not to the point of just doing what the composer intended. Because many of the so-called jazz standards started out as Broadway tunes, and if you were to do that, then suddenly everything would be on one and three again, and we can't go that way."

Flirting With Twilight achieves a nicely measured balance between the need to respect the material and the need to reinvent it. It also finds a similar equilibrium between the use of written arrangements and improvised performance. "I wanted to go in the direction of more of a Kenny Wheeler or a Bob Brookmeyer sort of thing, but only have it be an expression of what we're about and where we're coming form," says Elling. The arranging duties were handled by the singer's longtime pianist and musical collaborator, Laurence Hobgood. The arrangements make creative use the excellent sextet of musicians (Hobgood on piano, Marc Johnson on bass, Peter Erskine on drums, Clay Jenkins on trumpet, Jeff Clayton on alto saxophone, Bob Sheppard on tenor & soprano saxophone) deploying them both as an ensemble and as individual voices. Rather than trying to give the songs new shapes, Hobgood has given them new textures. The arrangements create an interesting backdrop against which Elling can work, but they never compete with the singer or hamper his creativity.

Of course, it helps that Elling chose songs of substance to work with. "You've got to try to have good taste," he explains. "There's some crap out there. Just don't sing it." The sterling repertoire for Flirting With Twilight developed naturally. "This was the right thing at this time," says the singer. "This was the material that I felt strongly about."

The album opens with a soft, almost ethereal vocalese piece based on a Charlie Haden's bass solo from a 1990 recording of "Moonlight Serenade." Elling also added lyrics to two inexplicably obscure melodies, bassist Curtis Lundy's gorgeous "Orange Blossoms in Summertime" and Chicago songwriter Fred Simon's "While You Are Mine." "Lil' Darlin'" serves as something of a tribute to two of Elling's main influences—Jon Hendricks, who wrote the lyrics for the Neal Hefti tune, and Mark Murphy, who recorded the song on his earliest classic album, Rah. Elling reaches outside the usual jazz repertoire for Stephen Sondheim's lovely "Not While I'm Around" from the 1979 musical Sweeney Todd. "His work is really good," says Elling of Sondheim. "It's very idiosyncratic. It presents limitations on blowing for the jazz musician that keep it from crossing over as often as a lot of people might think ...It's great, but it largely wants to stay within the confines of what he has set down." Flirting With Twilight ends with a surprise hidden track of Elling singing "Je Tire Ma Révérence" in French accompanied only by bassist Marc Johnson.

However, the heart of the CD has been drawn from the pages of the Great American Songbook. "Some of the things are going to be more or less eternal," explains Elling. "I mean you read the poems of Sappho and you're knocked out because they're so relevant. There are themes and there are issues, especially when it comes to the relationships between men and women, that, as long as there are a whole bunch of men and a whole bunch of women and they want to get along and get into it with each other, there's going to be heartbreak and there's going to be these issues that come up. And some poems and some songs are going to speak to that in a way that lasts because it was said right. And these [songs] really aren't that old. 'You Don't Know What Love Is,' that's not really that old of a tune. You know Americans have such a shortsighted ability, man; so wrapped up in 'Oh, that's ten minutes old.' That's not that old, man, it's not that old."

Kurt Elling strongly rejects the idea that the standard repertoire has been played out. "I think people want to blame the material for the lack of creativity among those who are singing it. It's that simple. It's not the material. It's good to have new tunes come in. It's great. Don't get me wrong. I'm a composer. And it's great to expand the possibilities in people's minds of what the tradition still has to offer. The only limitations on the tradition are the limitations of artists that are currently trying to work it."

Elling's defense of the tradition might come as a surprise to those who associate the singer with the more experimental aspects of his repertoire. Yet Elling sees the tradition as his foundation. "I tried to learn what I have been able to learn from the great singers, and each one of them has a gift that is peculiar to them and belongs to them. It's a beautiful thing ... I tell all the kids, man, get Mark [Murphy] records, get Frank [Sinatra] records and get Ella [Fitzgerald] records and learn everything that they've done," explains the singer. "If you learn the tradition, you'll learn what has happened. If you learn how to be a musician, you'll naturally come into your own."

However, Elling emphasizes that the task for his generation is not to recycle the past but to take that legacy and build upon it. "There was already a generation of Sinatra knockoffs and we don't need a second one," says the singer. "I kind of feel bad for the cats who want to be stuck in that again. In a way, the same thing with all the chicks who want to be Ella Fitzgerald. Don't fall in love with me for me; fall in love with me because I'm just like your old girlfriend. It takes a lot of courage to be a jazz singer, to make your own mark. It takes a lot of discipline; it takes a lot of dedication, because you don't just discover it. It doesn't just come to you. People think it just comes to you and it doesn't. It may be that you have a distinctive spark at the top of the form. It may be that you have an instinct or an insight that is natural to you because of things that have already happened. But to follow up on that and to really create your own thing and come out of the husk of the tradition and become your own new, creative being is a huge challenge. It is an onerous task. If you are not in love with it so much that you can do no other thing, then you shouldn't be doing it because you're going to put out a bunch of bad records."

That striving for an individual identity has been a constant theme in Kurt Elling's work. The singer made his national debut in 1995 when Blue Note picked up and released Elling's self-produced demo, Close Your Eyes. The then 27-year-old singer had clearly been influenced strongly by Mark Murphy. Elling shared with Murphy a fondness for poetry, vocalese and the Beat Generation. However, over the course of his subsequent records (1997's The Messenger, 1998's This Time, It's Love and 2000's Live in Chicago), it became clear that Elling was very much more than just a younger version of Mark Murphy. Just as Betty Carter pushed further than Sarah Vaughan in her search for improvisational freedom, so too was Elling attempting to move beyond Murphy in his efforts to build bridges between poetry, vocalese, spoken word performance and the popular song form.

Elling has shaken up traditional ideas of content and context by incorporating some decidedly unorthodox material in unorthodox ways. For example, "These Clouds Are Heavy, You Dig?" from Close Your Eyes is Elling's setting of a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke to Paul Desmond's solo from Dave Brubeck's recording of "Balcony Rock." On Live in Chicago, Elling interpolates a poem by St. John of the Cross into "My Foolish Heart." "I was in graduate school for the Philosophy of Religion at the University of Chicago and read a bunch of books that were way beyond my level of intelligence," explains the singer. "Some of it had to have sunk in."

Not all of Elling's vocalese lyrics are drawn from textual sources. "Where do you get any idea?" asks the singer rhetorically. "You just get it from your life. You get it because you're living and you're keeping your eyes open and you're trying to have as interesting a life as possible. If you are having an interesting life, then you're going to have something to say." Elling has written lyrics in the classic vocalese model, like his setting of a Lester Young's solo on "She Funny That Way" from This Time, It's Love. He has also experimented with extended narratives for more challenging compositions like Wayne Shorter's "Night Dreamer" on Live in Chicago or "Tanya Jean" on the The Messenger.

In many ways, Kurt Elling's "rants" are the opposite of his vocalese work. They are the spontaneous creation of both music and words. A rant (Elling's term) represents a complete submission to the idea of improvisation with nothing written out in advance. The finest recorded examples of this unique aspect of Elling's repertoire can be found in a suite of performances on The Messenger.

Elling has also worked at developing his skills as a songwriter. However, for Elling, when it comes to composing it begins and ends with Wayne Shorter. "He is the point man," enthuses the singer. "He's the spear tip plunging into the whale of music. He's at the very far most cutting edge of the moment, and people like me are sort of little bacterium on the very other end of the wood just like hanging on. His ability to compose the most profound and moving melodies with changes in such unique combination. He has such a gift and intelligence in his music that is just moving."

Elling's penchant for the difficult and the different have earned him both effusive praise and harsh criticism. However, no other male jazz singer of his generation has generated quite the same level of broad enthusiasm from critics, fans and musicians. But Kurt Elling recognizes that enthusiasm alone does not move CDs out of record store bins. "There is at least a time and a focus struggle for an artist who also needs to be an entrepreneur," he explains. "I don't make music that will automatically make it so that I fly around in my own plane and have a hundred attendants. I have to make a lot of people enthused about what I'm doing not only musically but also as a businessman."

Although Elling would clearly love to bring more people to his music, he has a firm sense of personal priorities. "The chief thing is to make the right music. The chief thing is to just make what you believe in, what you can really say, what you can really address, what's the best thing that you can make, and everything else is more like timing and marketing plans and things like that, and that's so secondary to the reason that you get into it in the first place."

So why did Kurt Elling choose jazz in the first place? "The freedom of it, the swinging essence, and the complete expression of the human condition," explains the singer. "You can get anything from 'I Feel So Smoochie' out of it and just a little pitter-pat, or you can go all the way to Wayne Shorter and get to the most central elements of the centrifuge and everything that's in between." Elling does not view jazz as just an occupation. "Being a jazz musician is a very high calling and it's a very difficult one," he says emphatically. "The paybacks have to do with what the music gives to you and what you are able to share with other musicians who are similarly challenged."

"I would define [a jazz singer] as somebody who is interested in improvising," explains Elling of his chosen vocation. "Somebody who is interested in a certain tradition of scatting and of composition in the hear and now. Somebody who draws on a peculiar American idiom that is urban, that for a long time was, and to some extent continues to be, an urban folk music. Somebody who's more interested in music for its own sake and the love of the music than just creating whatever product will create large sales."

Like most of the jazz singers of his generation, Kurt Elling grew up only peripherally aware of jazz. "My father's a church musician and so I came up doing Bach and Mozart," explains Elling. "When I was in college some cats down the hall were playing Bird and Dexter Gordon and Herbie Hancock, and it became a hip, fun sideline to sit in with cats." Elling did not find the transition from classical to jazz singing a simple one. "I went through a pretty difficult time," he admits. "It took really two or three years to get to the point where I could start thinking about even microphone technique."

Also like many of the jazz vocalists of his generation, Elling was drawn to the improvisational freedom of instrumental jazz. "I just started scatting and getting into it because I didn't know any better," Elling recalls. However, unlike most other singers, any limits Elling might have as a scat singer are limitations of technique rather than endowment. "If you include the falsetto, my range is in the neighborhood of 4 ½ octaves or something, but I don't use it all all the time."

"Good scat singing," explains Elling, "is compositional thinking in interaction with other composing musicians. Scatting is not just any old thing that you think of. Scatting is composing in the here and now. You are composing a new melody line and you are doing that based on work that you've done to understand the chord changes and what you like to hear played over those chord changes and what you feel tonight about that." Elling describes scatting as a gestural art. "It flings things at the audience or tosses them about or is a rat-a-tat, or it's a dance of sound. So every line should have a shape and ultimately you get to a place where you're just trying to deal in shapes."

As to who are the great scat singers, Elling says, "Mark Murphy, obviously, I think is one of the greatest. Nancy King. She's great. I really love her. She needs to be exposed a lot more to a lot more people. She's got so much joy to bring... Betty Carter should be on [the] list... Jon Hendricks, one of the greatest. He really hears it. He really hears it, man, he really expresses. That's the deal... I think Karrin Allyson, man, she can come across when she chooses. She's got a good thing going. Sheila Jordan. My girl, Sheila. She's got her own unique sound. I love her so much."

Kurt Elling developed his own impressive scat singing by sitting in on Chicago's thriving jazz scene. "People have been continually and persistently generous with stage time for me and encouraging me," says the singer. "Chicago is a great scene. It's very diverse. There are a lot of casual dates to be had, which is all-important for any performer to get that thing happening. You've got to spend time. Take all the dates. That's my word to the kids. You've got to take all the dates."

The Chicago born and bred singer still resides in the Windy City, and when he is not out on tour, he can be found performing at his favorite haunt, The Green Mill. However, Elling admits that his audiences have changed quite a bit over the last several years. "I'm very blessed," he says sincerely. "Most of the places where we go these days, people are there on purpose. That hasn't always been the case... a lot of the audiences we have now are very open minded and delicious and lovely. And a lot of people have heard a couple of our tunes, and they start to bring their friends, and that's great, man. I just really want to bring the best possible experience to people who care about jazz singing."

At the moment, Elling is planning for the official launch of Flirting With Twilight at a concert at the Park West in Chicago on September 15. "We will have three horns and some surprises and it will be a really brilliant night. I look forward to people hearing this record because I think it's the best thing that we've done, and I make it because I want people to have it. I have the chutzpah or the self-grandiose idea that people will actually like it and that it will be helpful... Music can be such a friend and that's really the communicative moment for music, when it touches people in such a way that they know they're not out there alone feeling whatever it is they're feeling."

However Flirting With Twilight is ultimately received, Kurt Elling knows that this is only one leg of a continuing journey. "[Jazz] never stops throwing the gauntlet down because there's always more to be expressed. There's always more that you as an individual artist have not played that is possible, and it calls to you all the time. It's just over the next hill, it's the next phrase, it's the next thing that you never played before, and that keeps it real. And it keeps you in communication with an audience on a given night or on a given record in a way that is much more personal, I think, than stuff that's on a much larger commercial scale."

"I still want to be the best possible version of this jazz singing thing that I can muster," says Elling. "I want to continue to grow. I hope that in thirty years, I look at my 33-year-old self not with regret, but with [the realization] I've learned a lot since then. I sort of expect the longer I go, the less hip I will have been in my own mind."




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