Kurt Elling - Divine intervention brought him to jazz
Kurt Elling was a student at Edinburgh University when he used to go to hear Tommy Smith playing at the Queen’s Hall. Fast forward twenty-two or so years and these musicians of a roughly similar vintage will be sharing the Queen’s Hall stage when Elling, who is now widely regarded as the greatest singer in jazz, guests with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra this weekend.
Back in his student days, Elling was new to jazz. He had a couple of friends at university who introduced him to recordings by Dexter Gordon and John Coltrane and on Fridays they’d go to the Queen’s Hall, where Elling particularly remembers seeing maverick trumpeter Don Cherry and the great alto saxophonist Bobby Watson, and Tommy Smith, of course.
What happened between then and now is that Elling, on returning to the University of Chicago after his year in Edinburgh, missed out on the language credit that would have seen him gaining his masters degree and instead of moving into academe as a professor of divinity, he started singing around Chicago’s jazz clubs.
Always a singer – his father was a church musician and encouraged all his children in music – he heard Mark Murphy tailoring the jazz tradition to his own needs and Jon Hendricks, of the Lambert, Hendricks & Ross vocal team, adding lyrics to jazz solos and thought, that’s what I want to do. And he’s done it spectacularly well.
His latest album, The Gate, would be an ideal place for the uninitiated to start. The non-jazz believer might have to cancel out two prejudices: jazz and prog rock (the album opens with an absolutely stunning reading of Matte Kudasai from the Adrian Belew edition of King Crimson). But just listen to the tonal quality of that voice.
Elling will tell you that it’s become richer with age and more flexible with experience and through gaining the wisdom of how to use it, but it’s easy to hear why Bruce Lundvall, a hardened record executive, had to pull over to the side of the road to listen properly to a demo tape Elling and his long-time musical partner, pianist Laurence Hobgood had sent him in the mid 1990s. At the time, Lundvall was head of legendary jazz label Blue Note and felt the demo was so good that he had to sign Elling before any rivals got to him. He called Elling immediately and after a few more songs were added the demo became Elling’s first album, Close Your Eyes.
“I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t singing,” says Elling, whose background in choral music runs from 13th century plainchant to Philip Glass, “and as far as the sound of my voice goes, I think I’ve been given a gift. I’ve never done anything consciously to develop the tone. If it sounds strong then that’s probably because I’ve had to work to fill the room in some of the clubs I’ve played. But for me jazz singing is as much about listening as it is actually singing and I’ve tried to learn from every one of the great jazz singers, to understand what made them great and what their contribution to the development of jazz singing has been.”
From Mark Murphy, Elling learned the importance of a singer putting his or her own stamp on a song, no matter its providence, and from Jon Hendricks, whom he regards as a second father, he learned “everything” – from how to write lyrics and sing the wordless vocal improvising style known as scat to how to run a show and treat an audience the right way.
He had other teachers as he served his apprenticeship in Chicago, working for a removal company by day while sitting in at clubs and singing for the door takings by night. The seasoned Chicago saxophonists Ed Peterson, Eddie Johnson (who was invited to join Duke Ellington’s band) and Von Freeman (a musician experienced in styles ranging from straightahead, swinging jazz to free improvisation as well as being father to the better known Chico) all heard something promising in the way Elling took chances and tried to find his own way through a song while still trying to swing, and took him under their wings.
So by the time he met Laurence Hobgood at a club where he’d blagged his way onstage, Elling had learned, first-hand, valuable lessons about choosing and counting out tempos and bringing songs to a close. He’d also developed an ear for bringing songs into the jazz tradition.
On The Gate, which could easily follow his previous album, Dedicated to You, in winning a Grammy – his previous seven albums were all nominated – Elling sings songs by Joe Jackson, The Beatles, Earth Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder as well as King Crimson alongside Miles Davis’s Blue in Green and an original by himself and the late Don Grolnick that features an excerpt from Duke Ellington’s Music is My Mistress.
“I’m fortunate that I spend a lot of time on the road so I can indulge my intuition as far as song choice goes,” he says. “With The Gate, some of these songs were worked out in my head and then road tested until we had arrangements we were happy with. But I also like to leave the possibility open for some instant magic to happen in the studio and that’s what happened with Matte Kudasai, which is one of a whole lot of songs from that band and that era that could be worked into the jazz canon.”
The prospect of singing Matte Kudasai with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra – it’s in the set list alongside Elling’s amazing interpretation of John Coltrane’s Resolution – appeals to Elling on several counts. He still feels very attached to Scotland generally from his student days. He’s particularly looking forward to working with Tommy Smith, whom he regards as “a prince”. And although his normal modus operandi is a small group with Hobgood, he loves getting onto a stage with a jazz orchestra.
“It’s always a lot of fun for me to sing with good loud charts and musicians who swing hard in the big band style,” he says. “It’s not every singer who can do that these days because the opportunities aren’t there the way they once were. But I’ve been lucky enough to have had that experience and I’m looking forward to driving that truck, as we say.”
From The Herald, March 10, 2011