By James Halecopyright © 1999 James Hale
Kurt Elling hits the stage like an Armani model strutting the runway, his sleek ponytail contrasted against his tailored suit. He slides into a songbook standard, pulling and stretching the melody line like a tenor player, leaning into the strong harmonic base set up by pianist Laurence Hobgood and the rhythmic counterpoint of drummer Paul Wertico. The jazz festival audience -- here on a passport that entitles them to sample any show on the program -- shifts uncomfortably. They expected a male singer, but Elling doesn't exactly fit the mold of Tony Bennett or Joe Williams. Those mannerisms, that stage patter; is he for real, or is he being ironic? By the third song, fully half have decided, real or ironic, he's not for them, and have left.
No doubt about it, Elling is not your father's jazz singer. He's a pure product of his era, fully conversant with the legacy of the Beat poets, as well as the stylistic achievements of vocal predecessors like Mark Murphy, Eddie Jefferson and Jon Hendricks. He's not content just to read a lyric; he wants to interpret it with as much freedom as any other instrumentalist on the bandstand. While he stresses vocalese over scatting, Elling phrases like a saxophonist, a trumpeter, or sometimes even a drummer. He takes risks, and has a distinctive vision about where he can take the art of jazz singing.
In fact, Elling has enough of a unique take on what he does that fellow Chicagoan Neil Tesser, jazz critic for Playboy magazine, once speculated at a conference examining the influence of John Coltrane and Miles Davis that the singer might be among a handful of current musicians who could make as big a mark on jazz as Coltrane or Miles. Tesser has also called Elling "the perfect jazz singer for the '90s."
True enough, it's hard to imagine a jazz singer from an earlier era coming up through the route that Elling took.
Born in November, 1967, he was immersed in choir singing from an early age through his father's church, and schooled in both violin and French horn. Although he remembers hearing Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald on the radio during driving vacations with his parents, jazz didn't make any real impression until he was studying religion at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota.
"This cat down the hall turned me on to Dave Brubeck and Herbie Hancock, and that's when I started really listening to jazz and stopped listening to jive."
Still, he wasn't quite prepared for the writer who would eventually influence his lyrical approach.
"The first time I read Jack Kerouac I didn't really dig it. I thought, 'Why doesn't this cat stop wasting everyone's time and get to the point?' His words didn't come off the page for me. It wasn't until I heard Kerouac's words interpreted by Mark Murphy, and heard Kerouac himself reading on recordings of performances on Steve Allen's TV show, that I realized what a compassionate cat he was, and understood the rhythm of his language and the flow of his subconscious mind. That's when I really started digging into his writing and discovered the depth of his artistry."
By the time Kerouac captured Elling's imagination he was on track to become a religion professor, studying philosophy and ethics at the University of Chicago's Divinity School. But, the balance was starting to shift. He was sitting in with anyone who would let him, and learning to express himself through music. He quit school one credit shy of his graduate degree.
"I went through a lot of different phases -- singing with Dixieland groups, gospel, some of the cutting edge AACM cats; anybody you can name. I would get up in any type of situation, just to get that experience of performing in front of an audience. Chicago has a really thriving scene, and cats encouraged me and were really generous in showing me how things went and giving me time on the stand. It was more than just a musical experience; those guys taught me about the whole jazz life."
One of these musicians was saxophonist Ed Peterson, who led the Monday night jam sessions at the Green Mill cocktail lounge on Chicago's north side. It was Peterson who encouraged Elling to develop his love of wordplay and his ability to improvise lyrics on the fly, and Peterson's pianist, Hobgood, who became the singer's musical alter ego.
Hobgood helped produce the demo tape that caught the ear of Blue Note Records head Bruce Lundvall; the tape and a rave review in The Chicago Tribune prompted Lundvall to offer Elling a contract to record what became the singer's debut, Close Your Eyes, released in 1995.
That recording and its followup, 1997's The Messenger, established Elling as someone with the imagination to revitalize the role of the male singer in jazz. While several singers -- most notably Leon Thomas and Joe Lee Wilson -- have introduced post-bop ideas to the genre, Elling is the first to meld contemporary improvisation with mainstream anthems like "April In Paris" and "Prelude To A Kiss".
There's also his theatrical bent and '50s hipster persona, together lending an air of Tom Waits to Elling's live performance, raising those questions about irony. Elling insists that what you see is what you get.
"It's natural for me to make things more theatrical and give people a little more than they expect."
Those who haven't been able to catch Elling live will be able to sample his unique approach to the stage on his fourth Blue Note recording, live from the Green Mill. The disc will feature several of his favorite songs from earlier recordings, along with a number of new songs.
Although he still considers himself far outside the commercial mainstream represented by singers like Bennett, Elling says he's comfortable with the level of work coming his way. In addition to his own recordings, he's had a chance to add his voice to works like pianist Joanne Brackeen's joyous Pink Elephant Magic, on which Elling extemporizes on the leader's lyrics to "What's Your Choice, Rolls Royce?" For now, too, there's enough satisfaction to living in Chicago.
"New York's cool, but I'm happy where I am, and I know that no one's going to make me king of the world just 'cause I'm there."