What is your conception of a jazz singer? Is it the casual finger-snap of Sinatra, all big-city sophistication and endless midnights, topped with a fedora? Is it the sonic sunshine of Louis Armstrong, handkerchief in hand, growling like a happy cat in mid-stretch? Or is it is the blues-informed sigh of Billie Holiday, eyes closed beneath crow-black hair drawn up in a bun with a simple gardenia?
Historically, at least, the art of jazz singing is all that. But, these days, it's best typified by one innovator, a vocalist wary of the music's river-deep history yet restless enough to push the sound farther upstream. Kurt Elling, a proud product of Chicago's bustling scene, is the man. When Elling pops into town, expect original poetry and maybe a dash of Whitman or Kerouac. There'll be bebop, for sure, and humor, too. In the pantheon of jazz singers, Elling is the logical next step. Is he preaching the new jazz gospel?
"I don't know if jazz is gospel," says Elling, on tour in Europe, "but it's certainly a tradition of creativity in which I believe. I am happy to play a small sustaining role in its continuation."
Accompanied by a trio led by pianist Laurence Hobgood, Elling's musical alter-ego, Elling's repertoire moves in multiple directions. Imagine a recorded solo by saxophonist John Coltrane set to Elling's words, or a complicated samba-suite composed by guitarist Pat Metheny and then rearranged as a concerto for the human voice. Elling's gig bag carries such esoterica, not to mention standards by Duke Ellington and Cole Porter. On stage, Elling is a master such that the band may play something it's never played at all.
"We tend to begin with a plan," he says, "and then I always read the room to see what's needed and what people are ready for next."
Indeed, with Elling, it's difficult to determine the line that separates composition from improvisation. That's jazz of the highest order and Elling's muse: the mystery between what is planned and what's made up on the spot in a flurry of inspiration. But does the difference have to be distinct for the audience?
"It is important that the artist somehow open up the necessarily selfish endeavor of artistry so that audiences have the opportunity to lose themselves in the experience," he says. "That means making art that is just as resonant emotionally for the novice listener as for the more experienced jazz aesthete."
In other words, the Elling experience is not a members-only proposition. Everyone's invited, but there is a caveat: Bring your passport. Elling's iPod includes traditional Turkish sounds he just discovered in Istanbul and some Icelandic a cappella tunes. This is one troubadour with open ears and a far-flung itinerary. Next stop: somewhere, anywhere. With Elling, the promise is that it will simply dazzle.
And though the dazzle—his cat-quick scat and expansive range—would suggest that he's conservatory-trained, he's not the product of a formal musical education. He's the son of a church musician and as a kid, simply loved to sing. His higher education includes studies at Gustavus College in Minnesota and the University of Chicago divinity school. For his jazz training, however, he matriculated at the University of the Streets, found in the smoky jazz clubs of the Midwest. As an absolute but fearless novice, he sat-in and jammed at bars and onstage, learning the ropes firsthand under the tutelage of journeyman musicians, some not so famous and others legendary, like the Chicago sax man Von Freeman.
He was the classic late-bloomer, but, once the jazz bug had bitten, he learned quickly. Elling reminded some listeners of Mark Murphy, a singer who combined an awareness of Beat-era poetics with ear-catching virtuosity. By 1995, he signed with Blue Note Records, the legendary jazz imprint, and his career took off. Each of his six albums for Blue Note has received a Grammy nomination.
But perhaps Elling's forthcoming record, set for February release on the Concord label, signals a change of pace. The sessions are a collaboration between the singer and Joe Chiccarelli, whose production credits include work with Elton John.
"[Joe] co-produced, really," Elling says. "I would never give my work over completely to anyone. I am interested in learning, however. Through conversations with Joe, I became interested in exploring alternative production techniques. I will always be intrigued if I sense that someone else in the room might give voice to a better idea.
"We haven't even mixed the record yet," he continues. "It's much too early to see some kind of bona fide left or right turn in the work. It's all of a piece to me. I make one judgment or have one idea at a time. What comes of it is cumulative."
Kurt Elling plays N.C. State University's Stewart Theatre on Thursday, Nov. 9 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $26-$30. To purchase tickets, visit ticketcentral.ncsu.edu or call 515-1100.