In conversation with kurt elling

By Ted Panken

                                Kurt Elling by Christian Lantry

Hardcore Manhattanites consider navigating Brooklyn a less daunting prospect than was the case some years ago. Nonetheless, on a rainy mid-June Monday, it was impressive to note that Kurt Elling, in Manhattan from Chicago on "creative sabbatical" for a year, opted to take the subway from a long rehearsal in Prospect Heights to a Fort Greene dinner appointment. Unprepared for the weather, Elling arrived soaking wet, precisely on schedule.

The rehearsal in question was for a four-night Birdland run in support of Elling's recent release, Dedicated To You [Concord], on which the 41-year-old singer and his working trio (pianist/arranger Laurence Hobgood, bassist Clark Sommers, and drummer Ulysses Owens) plus guest tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts and the Ethel String quartet interpret the program navigated by tenor saxophone icon John Coltrane and baritone crooner Johnny Hartman on their classic, co-eponymously titled 1963 album, and on Coltrane’s companion album Ballads, from 1962. It's a reminder that Elling—who made his name during the '90s as a kind of highbrow populist by conjuring brainy lyrics that captured the essence of classic instrumental improvisations (by Paul Desmond, Wayne Shorter, Dexter Gordon, Keith Jarrett), and singing them with immaculate craft and an on-the-edge attitude—is also a consequential interpreter of the American songbook. Elling has embraced the terms of engagement laid down by such core influences as Mark Murphy, Jon Hendricks, Nat Cole, and even Frank Sinatra, and emerged with a personal voice.

Let's start with the genesis of your current project, Dedicated To You. You debuted it at the 2006 Chicago Jazz Festival.

Yes. They gave us a call—specifically, Neil Tesser, who is on the board there. They had a double bill with Josh Redman. Josh was going to do the Africa/Brass stuff, and they wanted a nice A/B. Neil said, 'I know you don't have much rehearsal time, but would you be interested in doing the Johnny Hartman record?' I said, 'I'm happy to have the gig and I'm happy to hit next to Josh, but to just reiterate a record isn't grabbing me so much. How about if I think about it overnight and figure something out?' 'Yeah, of course.'

At that time, I was doing some things with Jim Gailloreto. He's a saxophone player, multi-reeds, great arranger, and he's got some stuff out on Naim-Audiophile. At the time, he was writing arrangements for saxophone-string quartet-bass, and he had me on a couple of cuts. He was arranging Wayne's stuff, and his own things, and he had me pick out a couple of Rumi [a 13th century Sufi poet] things so that he could score it. It was such a beautiful experience. That's why you want to hit with other cats—they turn you on to ideas. So when they called, I said, 'Let me have Jim write some stuff and have Laurence write some stuff, and we'll have a string quartet on it. So that will be at least a different flavor.' They said, 'We don't have any more money, but ....' I said, 'That's never stopped me.' [LAUGHS]

So Jim wrote some things and Laurence wrote some things, and we had Ari Brown play tenor, and my regular rhythm section at the time, and then we had the Hawk String Quartet. It was at Orchestra Hall, and it was cool. It fell together well. Some other promoters from other festivals were there, and asked, 'Can we have that?' 'Yeah, sure.' So it sort of snowballed over a couple of years. Laurence and I found some more things for him to write, and we rearranged some stuff. When we were doing some of these arrangements, we had Bob Mintzer at Zankel Hall and a couple of other spots. We tried it out with a bunch of different cats. Then we were in transition from Blue Note to Concord, we knew we had Night Moves coming, but we needed something else to keep the train on the tracks. So I said, 'Why don't we just keep working on this; it seems like people like it a lot.' It's a very different experience for me just to sing these tunes as opposed to, 'Let's stretch out, and I'll do this gigantic, obnoxious, vocalese thing.' For once, why don't we just bite off as much as we can chew, as opposed to more than we can chew?

The material was obviously a pleasure. Laurence has written some beautiful things. Having Ernie Watts on it really completes the picture, because his energy takes it to a place I would not have expected. So much more hard-charging. Yet still, he references Trane in such an organic and easy way. Since I don't sound anything like Johnny Hartman, then the whole experience is different, which I think is great, because I was never that interested in sort of copping ... The whole tribute idea seemed a little antithetical to my overall project. But here's a way that we can I think legitimately touch on material that people love and that we love, but the way we're handling it sounds so different. I hope it's homage through innovation, which I think is the way jazz is supposed to be.

So by January, when you did the recording, you'd been working with the material for a couple of years. It had been gestating and marinating over that time.

More or less.

Why the string quartet?

Again, it's because I had it in my head from working with Gailloreto, and we didn't have that much time, and I'm thinking, 'Ballads record, Orchestra Hall—here's a nice thing.'

Will you be using the string quartet at all on tour?

We've used the string quartet on big festival dates, in Monterrey.

You won't use it, say, when you play the Jazz Bistro in St. Louis in December.

No. They've got a cat that we're going to use, Willie Akins, a tenor saxophonist. We also had Bennie Maupin with us over in London.

You were just referring to how involved a project Nightmoves was, in contrast to the way this project has evolved. Now, Nightmoves had a very explicit narrative arc. You described it to Jason Koransky in a Downbeat article that you placed on your website: 'Late night. Dark night of the soul. Only questions at the top of the form, and only beautiful answers at the end.' Dedicated To You is a suite of songs that were randomly put together, that have iconic status by virtue of the popularity of the album they appeared on. Does that quality exist on this album? Was it in any way part of your intention in putting it together?

Short answer. There's no story line as such. I don't think that's necessary for this. This record is more in line with the way that I plan a regular concert. I don't have a scripted storyline that I want people to be conscious of, but I do want to take them on a little bit of a journey—to say a cliche. You want to start them from some place, and surprise them, keep them occupied, entertained, engaged, keep them surprised, keep moving them around so that by the end of the concert they feel like they've had a substantive meal. The first thing that I have to figure out is what's the right thing to open with. What's the way that I want to close? Then, in between there, how am I going to feature everybody in the ensemble at least once—even the bass player, once—so that everybody has their time, and how am I going to balance that out so that even if you're thinking of it in the most dry, logistical, mathematical framework, there aren't two tenor saxophone solos back-to-back? That kind of thing. Tempo changeup. What haven't they heard in a while? Those sorts of things drive the way this particular show—or this kind of show—operates for me.

Also the original project, as you mention in your monologue on the second track, was done in a very impromptu way. For both Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, this music was in the air, almost vernacular music. Now, you just did a six-hour rehearsal, whether for this or some other project.

For this week.

Ok. But it seems to me (although I know you've done a lot of jamming) that you approach presentation in a way that's anything but impromptu. I'm wondering how you found yourself approaching the different tunes. Did each one require a lot of thought? Did they come forth naturally?

Let me address your premise first. The reason we had a six-hour rehearsal is because we have a different drummer, Kobie Watkins, so we had to get him up to speed for this week. He's from Chicago, and he was with us for a year/18 months, which was great. But he's sitting in this week for Ulysses Owen. Otherwise, we would have gotten together for a couple of hours, played through, and reminded ourselves.

But I think what you're noticing is, yes, I do think through sets and I do pay a lot of attention to the stagecraft of how an evening could go, but on a given night .... This is why having a regular band is so important. On a given night, the left turn could come. 'Oh, we should play this.' Or, 'this person's here; we've got to play this.' Or, 'Let's change this up tonight; let's go here.' So I wouldn't want to give the impression that I'm bound to too much forethought. I like to start from, 'Here's the plan, here's the way I see it, this is the way it all falls,' and then once we're on the stage, all bets are off, and it could happen based on any number of things.'

The second part of your question. In the case of the recording, we only had one set to get it. We played a 90-minute set, and then we came back and basically hit Dedicated To You once or twice more, because it was a brand-new arrangement. But everything else was as it happened. A different order for the record, because we didn't know what we were going to use. We probably recorded a third more material than is on the record. So when we saw what we actually had, then I had to make decisions about what made sense in the context of a recording.

Was the John Coltrane-Johnny Hartman record an important record for you in your formative period? Does it have a resonance? Is it something you would have done if it hadn't been proposed to you?

No. I mean, I wouldn't have thought of it. And I'm glad that they did bring it to me, because I wouldn't have thought of it, and because we've had so much just joy from doing it, and I wouldn't have had the chance to tour with Ernie Watts. That in and of itself has been a big lesson in a whole lot of ways. But I wouldn't have thought to touch on any other than maybe to consider taking Speak No Evil and trying to write a lyric for all of it.

That would be a very different proposition.

That would be a very different proposition. That's the way my head naturally goes, though. 'Let me bite off this gigantic piece that I can't actually do.'

Was Johnny Hartman part of your influence tree in any way?

I can't honestly say that I had deeply considered it before this project. Because what do you say? The obvious beautiful sound, and the transparent emotional intent. If the gifts are that upfront, and that (again) obvious, then it's like, 'Yup, that's the lesson from that guy. Sound great and give 'em your open heart.' As opposed to Mark Murphy, where there are just so many potential lessons in a given performance on a given night or a given recording. Or Jon Hendricks. Or a Joe Williams—the sound, the emotional vibrant openness, but then the whole blues bag that he dips into. The room that he has to play in is a lot more varied. Small group, large group, etc. As opposed to Johnny Hartman, who seemed like you pretty much get the gifts that he had to give. I don't mean to say that in any demeaning way. But he doesn't seem like he was really a jazz person as such, or as we think of it. He wasn't an innovator as such. He was a beautiful singer.

He was probably coming out of Nat Cole in a lot of ways, and Billy Eckstine, I would think.

I don't know, man. Because I think if you're coming out of Nat Cole, then you're going to swing a lot harder, and you're going to be interested in stuff that's well beyond ballads, and you're going to approach the ballad in a little bit more chic way. I don't think of Johnny Hartman as very chic in his approach. It seems to me like he was a guy who loved to sing, who had a beautiful gift, and Trane put him in a context that was any singer's dream—and I'm not sure what more there is to say. Again, I don't mean to demean what he had. But Mister B, you know!? Picking cats for his band, who was going to write the chart, 'this is the way I want it to go, this is the material that I want.' Let alone just swinging his ass off, and the bandleader thing, and the showmanship thing.

And the swagger.

The swagger. But all these individual things that add up to what it was, being a mentor. A teacher. His thing with Sarah. All that stuff. Whereas Johnny Hartman has this little beacon of beauty that comes up in history, and was a little bit forgotten. And it seems like his skill set was obvious to him. He knew what he wanted to do, he came out, he did it, and he was fortunate to be given a gorgeous instrument.

I get the sense, though, that Coltrane was very important to you as a young guy.

I don't know how you can be a jazz person or a music lover and not pay what attention your mind can pay to Trane. He was a searcher. He was going for that which is beyond music. He was going for expression of soul and investigation of soul, and music was his tool to investigate his own soul. Mingus, right? 'My music is the evidence of my soul's will to expand.' That's what you're going for. Music is the embracing mother that teaches, that scolds, that rewards—or, as Gwendolyn Brooks would say, 'she is a requiring courtesan.' But you use it so that you understand yourself better and your soul better, if you're somebody like John Coltrane. That's a different thing from what Johnny Hartman was up to, it seems to me.

From where you embarked on this project, around Labor Day of 2006 'til January 2009, when you recorded Dedicated To You, how has the music evolved? How have the interpretations evolved? Is it recognizable from what you did in Chicago, or is it a very different entity?

That's an interesting question. I've thought about that. I think what we did in Chicago was ... I almost want to say homemade or homespun. We had so little time, and so little rehearsal to really get it, and thank goodness for everybody being so professional, and Ari bringing his nobility to the project. One obvious thing is that there's only one real Gallioreto chart. It's the medley of 'My One And Only Love' into 'Nancy, With the Laughing Face.' Other than that, Laurence and I have been reworking, and rehandling, and reshaping, and in some cases we have included things that were not on ... We only had 50 minutes on the original concert, whereas now, when we go out, we can do a 90-minute show with this stuff. As I say, we recorded more than we released. As I also said, having Ernie on raised the stakes considerably. Having Ernie on raised the velocity, the intensity. He's been teaching us all stuff, on and off the stand. He has a very determined and well-studied view of the spirit and how it is in the world, and it's pretty beautiful and encouraging to be around somebody who can articulate it like he can, both verbally when we're driving around in a van, and musically when we're driving around on the stage. It's quite remarkable. That cat, he's read some books, bro!

You make a reference to Sinatra in the 'Easy To Remember' monologue, and I wondered if that was coincidental.

I'd actually read that someplace, that Trane was checking out Sinatra, and that it was specifically the breathing stuff. He wanted to know what that phrasing was about.

But you're a writer and a poet, and I don't think you use references casually. Plus, I know you listened a lot to Sinatra. Your breath control is pretty special, you uncork those wonderful long lines. So I was wondering if you could say something about Sinatra. Is he part of your pantheon in the way that Coltrane and Wayne Shorter are?

Oh yeah! You've got to give it up to Frank. It's funny. The cats that get forgotten, Frank not being one of them, thank goodness. I mean, he's such a reference point for so many people. And he's such a money-maker still! It's just incredible. But for him to have taken what Pops and Bing Crosby were doing in terms of liberating the melody from the strict, sort of Rudy Vallee squaresville thing, and then hitting it so hard with a big band ... You want to talk about somebody with a plenitude of gifts. I'm sure he stole a bunch of stuff from Mr. B, too, because B had been fronting a big band, and the manhood of it, choosing which band you're with, knowing how it's going to go, choosing the set lists, everything from that to once he had on his suit, not sitting down because it would wrinkle the back of the knees. Then there's just the sound of it. Man, you listen back to that Rat Pack stuff, and these recordings of Dean Martin doing his shtick. I don't know how that guy ... I mean, God bless him, but Frank comes on and just blows him out of the water. You know what it reminds me of? It reminds me of stories that Von Freeman tells of all the cats, all the tenor players, even known cats, being on a session, and ... 'Oh, man, Prez [Lester Young] was there, and Hawk [Coleman Hawkins] was there, and then Jug [Gene Ammons] would come on, and everybody would be playing all their licks and all their lines, and then Jug would come on, and he would say, FRAWWKKK'— and just POW!!! If it's like that, what do you do? You just bow down.

As you mentioned in describing the process of putting together Dedicated To You, you've been very much joined at the hip with Laurence Hobgood. I think I read that you met in 1993 when you were sitting in with Ed Peterson at the Green Mill on the North Side.

Well, that's the time that I remember. Laurence remembers a whole other long story. I remember hearing Laurence with Ed, and being astonished at the level of virtuosity that everybody in that band was displaying. Playing such difficult charts, and just pulling them out of a book eight inches thick. 'I think we haven't played this in eight years; let's do this'—and then music! And cats going for it every night. But the virtuoso level was something that impressed me very deeply. Then Ed invited me to sit in. I guess he hadn't had any singers sit in for, whatever, eight years of that band working, so Laurence was surprised at that, and I was nervous as hell. I'd been shedding all week just on the three or four things that Ed had given me, just so I could play the head on these things and have some idea of what I was going to do. Ed was always so gracious. I should put in a word for him. Man, what a gift that guy gave me, by example, by the way that he led that band, by the craftsmanship of his charts, and the sound of his axe, the study that he had done to master it. I really miss having him around.

He lives in New Orleans now?

Yes. I'd pretty much put him up against ... a lot of cats.

Was there any kind of vocal scene in Chicago when you started? Were you stepping into a kind of vacuum as a young guy?

Well, as a young guy I probably was stepping into a vacuum just because I was a man. Was there a vocal scene? I'm not really sure. If there was, I wasn't really in it. I always feel like I'm kind of on the periphery of whatever scene there is anyway.

Is that because you were in Chicago?

Yeah, probably because of Chicago and probably because of the singer thing. But it's also just my paranoia.

But you did create your career in Chicago.

I did. That adds to it. I was a singer from Chicago. Until now, I haven't really lived in New York. I didn't go to music school. So there was never a sort of crucible where you get your team together, other than the teams I've had as a bandleader and the friends that I've made along the way—and I've been grateful to have them. Laurence is my collaborator, and I'm so fortunate to have him. We complement each other's thing so well. I point a direction and I say, 'Let's go over there; let's do this Johnny Hartman thing, and let's do it with strings,' and so on. 'Ok.' 'So let's look at these tunes together.' 'Ok.' 'Hey, I'm feeling ... What do you think about 'You Are Too Beautiful' over here in 3?' 'That's a good idea.' Then all the detail work starts. That's not to say that Laurence hasn't come up with whole compositions on his own and said, 'We should do this.' We confer. Other than all the logistical things, it takes a lot of the loneliness out of the work.

When I lived in Chicago, I really felt the whole second city thing. On the one hand, there are these extraordinarily talented people, and there's not really a market.

The elevator only goes up to like the third floor, is what it comes down to.

Something like that. But then there's also a defiant quality, and this notion of individuality that all the older black players used to talk about as the ethos from the '40s, '50s and '60s. You seem to have absorbed that. I'm wondering if that has something to do with having lived in Hyde Park, on the South Side.

I definitely have tried to pay attention to the history of Chicago jazz and Chicago musicians. Cats have been beautiful to me. Von telling me stories about Jug, and letting me get up every time, and being so generous with his encouragement, and coming on my gig, and trusting me with stuff, and encouraging me—as he has generations of cats at this point. Then Eddie Johnson, who now must be almost 90, one of the original members of the Louis Jordan band

He was on your second record.

Yeah. Man, talk about living history. He was there with Louis Jordan. He made an unfortunate business decision. Ellington wanted him to join, and he had a kid to support, and Louis Jordan was hot, and then five years later Louis Jordan was not, and Duke kept going.

It seems to me that one advantage of being in Chicago, outside the shark pit of New York, is that you can develop your approach at your own pace.

Absolutely. There's no question about it, that Chicago was and has been and I'm sure will be again a place of total creative freedom, where you can get into it on a given night and go wherever you need to go to figure out what you need to figure out. This individualist thing: Von would get on a set with us, and I'd start getting crazy, and he would just be like, 'Man, do it! Blow free! Go! Be creative. Express yourself!' Ed Peterson loved it, too. They all loved it. Eddie Johnson was probably the most conservative of the three, because he was coming from the Swing Era. You wanted to play up to what your heroes like about what you play, and each of them brought out a different thing. Von brought out a hard-swinging, hard-charging, hard bop, occasionally crazed, over the top blowing thing. Ed Peterson brought out the very new music-experimental-intellectualist side of things that could also go free if the occasion called for it, but also was very studied and very profoundly disciplined. And Eddie Johnson brought across the whole 'make sure it swings; don't forget Basie; don't forget Ray Brown; don't forget that.' I love these guys, and I have wanted and continue to want them to be happy with what I do, and to be proud of me, in the way that you want your fathers to be proud of you.

But it's interesting that you should mention the Chicago thing, because all three of those guys are very Chicago players. I regret that I never got to hit with Fred Anderson that much.

I don't get the impression you were in that scene.

Checked it out, but not really to hang. Some things, you learn what you learn from going out and checking it out, and just being respectful—and paying a cover charge.

Not to get all heavy and psychological, but you spoke about pleasing fathers. Your father was a kapellmeister in a Lutheran church?

Yes, in Rockford, Illinois, which is an hour-and-a-half straight west of Chicago.

You didn't go to music school, but I suppose with a father who teaches music and from being in the chorus early on, music has always been part of the fabric of your life.

That's true. Well, in conservatory they make you do all that … stuff. [LAUGHS] All that hard stuff. They make you do all the stuff you're supposed to do to be a musician, i.e., heavy transcribing, and you've got to write arrangements for things, and you've got to ... We don't have training like that. I have training as a choral person. My reading chops are so-so. It's my ears that I've developed, and it's a sensibility that I've developed. I'll spend my life trying to play catch up to all these people who go to conservatory, but I think I have other things happening because I didn't go. Which is why I can't get too down on myself for not being in anybody's club, because then I judge my own work, and I judge the quality of it—and I do what pleases me. I really think I am my worst critic.

When you're trying things, when you experiment, on some of the nights you're going to rub people the wrong way. You're taking chances, and some of it is not going to work out ... I think it's more important to go for it, and to bank on the fact that in the long run my intention is sincere and pure, and that my love for the music is sincere, and that I believe in the process, and that, then, over time, the parts that are too rough are going to get evened out, and the parts that are not rough enough are going to get rougher—and by the time I'm 70 I'll be worth listening to. If my voice lasts.

I want to get back to these formative years in the choir. You mentioned that you trained your ear that way.

Well, I had to. If you do the Bach Motets consistently, and one year you're the soprano, and the next year you're an alto, and then you're a tenor, and two years later you're the bass but it's the same motet, then you get a sense of how things fit together. Bach is an incredible teacher for that. I mean, it's the ultimate in counterpoint. So if you start from that, and you start from the time that you can remember, singing for the joy of it ... I've heard, I've read, I've talked to people, and you can go to conservatories or to teachers, and have music sort of ground out of you, because the labor of it—even if it's just for a couple of years—outweighs the joy of making music. I've certainly labored diligently and hard, and I've had discouragement in music, and disappointment, but everything that I was a part of—almost everything—has a measure of joy from the time I can remember singing in church. It was joyful. Lutherans singing at the tops of their lungs in four-part harmony. How exciting. How thrilling. And praising. And very energizing. Then you're in grade school and you're in a choir, and then you're in high school, and now, if you're me, you're good enough to start singing with adult groups, so you're singing Brahms' Requiem and you're singing Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, and you're singing Handel's Messiah, and you're singing Mendelssohn, and you're singing all these different things. Then you get to college, and now you're doing 12th century music, and doing crazy Norwegian composers, and doing Ravel, and now it's all a cappella. So over that whole time, you develop, 'am I into it; am I not?' If you're blessed with great conductors and great musicians who are leading the groups, then they tell you that you're not, you pay attention.

It's a really organic process. It comes from a standpoint where you say to yourself, 'I love to sing. These are my people. All these choir geeks are my people. These are my best friends. I want to hang out with them. I can't wait to get to rehearsal today, because we'll have jibber-jabber, and then we'll sing these incredible things, and I'll feel great, and then we'll all go to dinner!'

Where did jazz enter the picture? The bio states that you listened to instrumental jazz, and then in college someone took you to hear Mark Murphy. I'm sure it was more than that.

My father was not just a church musician. He was also a high school band instructor and the high school band conductor, although not when I was in high school. So there was a lot of music around. They certainly had a couple of Frank Sinatra records. I remember peripheral things, like turning on the TV one night when I was in junior high, and ... what was the big band? It would have been the Thundering Herd. Everybody's wearing black dinner jackets, live from Lake Tahoe, whatever. Then on comes Tony Bennett, in this beautiful white dinner jacket, and he's the guy who gets to sing. I say, 'Well, gosh darn it, that looks like a lot of fun; I wouldn't mind doing that, being the only guy wearing the white dinner jacket, and get up and sing in front of a band like that. That looks like a lot of fun!' <./p>

But it was all little drips of things. I hadn't met any jazz people, and all I had as examples were academics and church people. I didn't particularly care to go into that. But jazz was around. It was in the atmosphere. When I was in college, a guy down the hall lived by Mount Hood, and his pop would always take him to the jazz festival. So he knew about Oscar Peterson, and he knew about Herbie, and he knew about Dave Brubeck. He said, 'Hey, you like that? Check this out.' So that's the way that started.

I'm not really sure how it was that we went to hear Mark Murphy, and I don't even remember who was in the group I went with. But we were there, and it was a real life-changing thing. Not because I thought to myself, 'Well, now I'm going to do that,' but because it was the real thing. It was jazz, and it was hitting really hard. Mark was in his vocal prime. And the drama of it! The thrill of it, the showmanship. It was killing! I remember that he did his version of [SINGS] 'Because of one caress my world was overturned'—'Never Let Me Go,' with his ending, where he goes back to the bridge. The way he ends it is, 'Because of one caress ... my world was ... over ... turned.' I'm in college. What's going to happen? It was, 'Holy shit, this guy is a total master!' Just such emotion.

Which is our tie-in to Johnny Hartman, because Johnny Hartman's thing is about emotion, and he makes people emotional. What other gift do you need? This is a little parenthetical. If all you need to do to be emotional is to sing, then God bless you!

Then at the little college where I went, Gustavus Adolphus [in Saint Peter, Minnesota], they had what they called a 'stage band'—old school. I got to sing with them right away. I auditioned, and I was the only guy who was ready to start improvising. There was a little vibraphone-led quartet. Again, because you're out in the provinces, it's so much easier to have access to start. You start, and suddenly you've got a gig once a week with these guys, just sitting in, doing a couple of tunes—but again, drip, drip …. It's like reverse beautiful Chinese water torture. You get better and better, more and more inspired, more and more acclimated.

Then you entered the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. But you didn't go to Chicago with the idea that you were going to be a musician.


One of the articles mentioned that you majored in Philosophy of Religion, and you intended to perhaps work for the World Council of Churches.

Something. I didn't really have a plan beyond getting the degree.

Were you writing poetry at the time?

No, not really. I didn't have time for anything like that.

You read a lot of philosophy and a lot of theology.

Yeah, boy. I was working hard. Talk about discipline or hard work. [LAUGHS] Because the people in Divinity School at the University of Chicago can't prove a thing, especially if you put them right across the lane there from the business school, and from math, and chemistry. Your personal intellectual razor has got to be beyond any level of sharp blade that you've encountered before. I don't mean to put it down. But my impression walking away was just, 'Wow, these guys just duel for a duel's sake, because they can't prove it; they're freaking out because they can't prove it.' None of this stuff actually exists!

Are you telling me that you're an agnostic?

Well, no! But I don't have to have proof. One doesn't have to have proof of anything. But you're going to get yourself into a little bit of a bind by the very nature of what you're trying to accomplish. Whence the problem of Evil? There's no answer. You can be as incisive as you can possibly be, and have all the facts at your command, and do the broadest reading possible, and you can say, 'Well, it's partially chemistry, and it's partially the friction of naturally competing bodies,' and you can also say it's original sin—all these different categories. But there's no proof that Sin as a category actually exists! I mean, you say what people do. But it's not like one plus one equals two, and it's not like H2O. It's not the same category.

It could be if you believe in a certain way, but ...

But it's belief in a certain way. Ok, fair enough. We can get into a whole thing about whether science ... You have to believe science for science to work. Right?

But you need God. Somewhere in the process you need God. Somewhere in your life. Just like people who have God need to confront 'the Void.' People who have God, if they're really honest about their experience ... 9/11. My grandmother died of cancer, or I got cancer. Awful things. The problem of Evil. People who have a set of beliefs, or even a growing or burgeoning set of beliefs, need to confront the Void. This is why the Book of Job exists. The Book of Job exists because it's a confrontation with the Void, and ultimately, there is no answer from the Void, and the only answer from Yahweh, or Jehovah in The Book of Job is: 'I exist. You don't get it? You don't get to get it. You're less than nothing to me. You're less than nothing compared to me. What answer do you even deserve?' That's Job. That's the Void.

Now, the flip side of that is that people who have a more natural skepticism toward the possibility of a deity, or toward a divine or transcendent reality, need to confront the possibility that there is a transcendent reality. You can point to something as simple as the scientifically proven fact that we have auras. Why do we have an aura? Because we're solid state. Because we're electricity. How could electricity possibly be contained by mere skin? Well, of course, you have a force field. You have an electrical field. On the spectrum of abilities, some people are going to have the ability to see an aura. Now, 'aura' sounds like a corny name for it. But that's its name. Clearly in photography, you can take a picture of your aura. Why? Because there are specialized cameras that can take a picture of the electrical field surrounding your body. Well, there you go. You and I can't see it. You need to confront your transcendent self. You need to at least confront the questions in an honest way.

So it's both/and. And the best poetry, the best art, the best substantive communication is communication that grows from, touches on, explores, expresses at different times and in different places and in different ways, the Void, which is a reality; a potential deity, which is a reality in a certain way of looking at it; and a third way, which is a kind of benevolent reality, which is more of a Buddhist 'there is no deity, but we belong here, we are part of this, the stars and all things—we're ok, and we belong here—and Void, don't worry, you're a part.' There are really three possibilities. And great artists ultimately confront these things.

During your years at the Divinity School, about '89 to '92 ...

Three years, three-and-a-half. Sitting in.

So you weren't only studying.

No. I should have been only studying. [LAUGHS]

How did music take over?

At first, I didn't go out. I only studied, because that's what I was there for. I missed singing, but I just didn't think that was my vocation. When you've committed to graduate school, you figure you've got your plan. You at least tell yourself that's what you're there for. You don't have time to go out, and you're exhausted by the end of the day, etc. So the first year, I don't think I went out. But the second year, I needed to get some music into me again. I was starting to get unbalanced.

This would be 1990.

I guess so. So I started to go out, and somebody said, 'Hey, let's go to the Green Mill.' We went, and I sat in. It was a Friday or Saturday night, they're jamming, the place is packed, and it's killin' and beautiful. After the first set, I go over to the guy and say, 'Hi, I'd like to sit in; my name is Kurt Elling.' 'Oh yeah! What do you play?' 'I'm a singer.' 'Oh ... yeah. Ok, just hang out for a while.'

The session ends at 4. It's 3:40. So we wait through all this, and finally they get me up. I get up and scat. The room changes. Now, I had been studying; I'd been doing it by then. At that point in my life, I had some very clear signals that were pointing me toward being a musician, toward being a jazz singer. I'd sit in someplace, and all the musicians would dig in, and put the hammer down. They'd get down and they'd pat me on the back, 'Yeah, come on back, young man!' The whole room would light up. It was a mystery to me. It's still a mystery. I don't know what that is, other than that it was a sign, a gift to me that was trying to get me to be who I am now, and it happened over and over and over again.

So here we are at the Mill, and it's almost 4 in the morning, and I get up and I do my thing. I sit around and wait, they play one last number, I go over to the same guy and I'm like, 'Hey, man, thanks very much. Thanks for having me on;. I appreciate it.' He said, 'Oh, yeah-yeah, you sound real good.' I said, 'If you ever need a singer or anything ...'—and I had my little Kinko's cut-out card. 'If you ever need a singer ...' 'Oh, yeah, right!' He throws it over his head, behind him, and it goes flutter-flutter, flutter-flutter, down to the floor. I was just shocked. I was like, 'Wow! At least just put it in your pocket and then just don't call. There's no reason to be like THAT.' He was like, 'Oh, no. I'm just kidding. Hold on ... where is it?' [LAUGHS] That would be the flip side of that same experience. You know how threatening it can be when you have a gig and you're trying real hard ... Life is hard and sad. It's hard for people. Then some singer comes in, and it just seems like this typical goddamn thing. 'Here we've been blowing all night, and nobody hears a note I'm playing, and then ....' It's got to be hard. So my heart goes out. But ... [LAUGHS]

The voice is the voice.

The voice is the voice. I don't know how we got on that. That's a parenthetical story.

So music took over because you were getting these signals.

Music took over because I kept getting all these things. Von would say, 'Come on back,' Eddie would say 'Come on back,' to the point where, on a given week, I really wasn't doing the work that I should have been doing for graduate studies. On Monday night I would go hear Ed Peterson and sit in. On Tuesday night I would go to Von. On Wednesday I'd go to another place called the Leather Lounge, where you had to get buzzed in, and this whole out scene—but Von's little brother, George, had the gig, and he had me on. All these older cats, and they were all just, 'Come on!'

Probably they heard some of the church ...

There was some church in there. There was a Lutheran church in Chicago called Bethel Lutheran, and I had sung in the church choir there. I had sung with Dixieland bands, and I had sung a lot of gospel stuff. I was sort of trying to put all the pieces together. I was conscious enough of the history of jazz, and the history of jazz singing, to want to figure out how could I sing with ... 'Well, I've sung with the big band. I've sung with the gospel choir and I've soloed with the gospel choir. I've done counterpoint. I've sung with this Dixieland thing. I did small group. What other skill set do I need to get with here that I at least have contact with?'

It sounds as though on a certain level jazz was a way to confront some of those existential questions that were cropping up.

At this point, it was just a relief. I was kind of crapping out.

But is there anything to that statement?

There has been since. For sure. It's in my writing, and it's in my intention. It's in that leap into the unknown that is the experience every time you start a solo and you don't know where it's going to go. That's the voice as much as anything else. It's just the Void with friends and chord changes. But it's the unknown.

How did the writing start? It sounds like the final piece of the puzzle, and what made an impact on people outside of the little community in which you were starting to make your name, wasn't so much your command of scat singing and improvisation, but the lyric-writing to the solos, and the type of lyric writing it was, and the content, and the type of solos to which you were writing the lyrics.

I think that's true. I think that's probably what made people think, 'Wow, there's something real here.' Ed Peterson was the first one to recognize that. I don't remember the exact sequence of events of how it started, but it had to do with my figuring out just exactly what Jon Hendricks and LHR [Lambert, Hendricks and Ross] was up to. You put on Art Blakey or Horace Silver or something, and you're like, 'Hey, wait a minute! That's that solo.' Then you get out your other record, and you're like, 'Whoa!' Then you figure out what it is, then the door opens, and suddenly I said to myself, 'Well, that's a cool thing to do!'

It answered a question for me. I would say to myself: That Paul Desmond solo is so beautiful. I love it. I've memorized it. I wish I could just sing that solo. Wouldn't that be marvelous? That would just be the shit, man. You could just come out and sing a Paul Desmond solo, and it would be note-perfect and beautiful. And as soon as Jon's thing became apparent to me, then I went right to that Paul Desmond solo, and I sat down, and in an evening I came up with 'Those clouds are heavy, you dig,' just because I already had the Rilke, because I was doing so much of that—it was all just jam-packed in my head. Then I was trying to jam-pack all this jazz stuff in my head, and it was like, 'Wow, I could just do that!' It was like one evening, just WHOOSH. 'Wow, that was fun. Let's do more of that. A lot of fun!'

Is a lot of the thematic content of your lyrics drawn from your theology studies during those years?

I think it naturally comes out. Well, I don't think it comes necessarily from those years as much as it more often and more broadly comes from my childhood, and the themes that I had then. Honestly, I'd like to be an intellectual. I've got my moments and everything. But I just compare myself to, 'Well, Martin Marty!' 'Well, David Tracy.' 'Well ...'

Those are tough acts to follow at the University of Chicago.

Impossible. I wasn't given that gift to read Habermas and Schleiermacher. I can get the gist of it, and I can follow it, and I can get with it, but it's just not my gift. And it wasn't my gift at the time. It's not a gift of poetry. It's not a gift of lyricism. It's not a gift of musicianship. It's not even a gift, from my meager intellect, of being able to put very disparate elements together in a way that tells you something new. David Tracy can do that. Again, like Frank Sinatra, with the sound, with the ultimate mastery. David Tracy, with the ultimate mastery of intellect and of the history of thought.

So the lyric-writing was a way for you to bring together your thoughts and ideas. But where did the beat poetry come from?

Mark's stuff turned me on to that. His Kerouac records. Then, if you're a reader anyway, it's easy enough. Kerouac's so beautiful, because again, his intention is so pure. I think his naivete did him in as much as anything else. He really believed it, and he wasn't cynical. He's my favorite of those guys, because he's gullible. He paid a pretty heavy price for being so naive and so innocent—from where I stand.

Of the poets then, the other one who was really involved with jazz on a performance level was Kenneth Rexroth.

But he wasn't really a Beat. He was a generation before. And Rexroth, now there's a total brainiac. There's an intellectual. There's different reasons to identify with different writers. Rexroth, I envy his internal library. But I identify with his sense that time is always passing, and that it's time to do it now. Because the earth will be here, but soon enough we will just be chemical constituents, so let's ... honey, let's make love now! He said it better than anybody. Man, do I envy his library. But Kerouac, God bless him. He was taken down by his innocence.

So it seems that between around 1991 and 1995, when you do your first record, things are percolating.

Yup. It was an intense time. Which is why it was probably good that I just lived ... I couldn't have lived with anybody, and I was in this basement apartment in Hyde Park for $100 a month, moving furniture by day and doing gigs at night, and reading as much as I could. Aimlessly just digesting. Because I already had so much stuff in. It was very thorny and it was very painful. I really thought I was going to be a professor or something, and it was nerve wracking to be in an extended process of realization that the people surrounding you are leagues more gifted than you, and there's no way you'll ever catch up to the train that you're on—and not to have an answer to what you're actually supposed to be doing instead. I was white-knuckled coming out of that experience.

But you come out with a record, it gets a lot of press.

By the time Laurence went in to make a record, I was certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that we were going to get signed, it was going to be big, I was going to be on a road. I had no doubt about it. Even if that meant I would have something to sell off the stand in cassette form, and that I would take the next step, whatever that was, but I was on the road. By the time we went in to demo stuff up, I didn't have any doubts.

But once you do the record, then you have to do the next act, then the act after that. You have to keep coming up with material. Did making the first recording crystallize things for you, in a sense? Visual artists, for example, display a body of work in a show, then they can move on to the next thing.

Sure. It was finally good to have something that was successful, to be 28 or whatever I was at that point, and to have something that was visible. That day when Bruce Lundvall called me up and said, 'I'm coming to Chicago to hear you sing, and I want to sign you, and don't talk to anyone else until you talk to me.'

You had sent him a cassette, and he was driving to New York from his dentist's office and put it in his car cassette player.

It's a good day when a Bruce Lundvall calls you from Blue Note Records. But it also fulfilled ... I was reading Charlie Chaplin's autobiography, and he was like, 'I always knew that I was the greatest actor in the world. When I was a street urchin with nobody around to help me, and I was six and seven and eight years old, and living on the street penniless, I knew that I was the greatest actor in the world. I've never not had a sense of that confidence and of that idea, that revelation.' I don't remember the exact quote.

But I think many of us have a feeling like that. You're a kid, and you want your life to mean something, and it needs to be revealed to you, and there are these terrible, terrible awkward times, and a lot of pain, and a lot of growing, and a lot of confusion and fear, and overcoming fear. I watched Almost Famous last night, the film about the guy who was like 15 and writes for Rolling Stone and goes on the road with this band. There's an older rock critic, and he's advising this kid who wants to be a rock critic. He says, 'You're not cool. I'm not cool. We're writers, man. We're going to be alone. All of the chicks, they're going to go for the really handsome guitar guy. But we have the mind, and we get to be writers. And you know what? I'm not cool, you're not cool, but the only true currency between human beings in this life happens when you're the least cool.' Yeah, man, that's nice.

But then, you're also the guy on the bandstand looking sharp and the whole thing.

That comes from a long ... Well, for 90 minutes a night.

I want to talk more about stagecraft. You referred to the stagecraft of Dedicated To You. You've done a number of large-scale productions. You seem to think that way.

I'm a natural director.

Does it come from experiencing the sermons as a young guy?

No. I think it might come from the ritual, though. You get a sense of how a ritual plays out. There's a pacing and a timing to ritual. There's an entrance, and there's a ritual to the entrance. The people are there, and the candles get lit, and the music starts, and all these different elements occur. It isn't until a certain number of things have happened that the Word comes, that the sermon comes—and that's two-thirds of the way through the gig. By that time, the people have said, the man speaks, it's back to the singing, you do the thing, you stand up, sit down. By the time the sermon comes, you're in a place. You're ready. I think of that as a bit analogous to the thing that you play when you play what you really came to play for them—when you get to the reason that the set is occurring. You could think of it as the 11 o'clock tune, the ballad. There's a ritual that you go through to get to certain things. You've got to set it up in such a way that people are softened up, or moved around, or prepared. Because the closer, at least for me, tends to be just like, 'Smack 'em around a little bit.' You've said what you came to say. Now you're just going to go for the big, juice them so that they all feel they got what they came for. Now you give them the drum solo. Now you introduce the cats. Now you go home. If they want an encore, they're going to have to tell you about it.

I don't think of it consciously like that very often. Only in interviews. But I'm not afraid of self-revelation to myself. [LAUGHS]

It seemed to me that your records for Blue Note were somewhat compartmentalized. But with Night Moves you seemed to synthesize your various strategies into a single recital.

In any case, I am trying to do the best that I can with the material that's at hand and the abilities that I have at that time. Part of the luxury of having a working band is that you can do things a little bit piece-by-piece in terms of doing new material, and road-test it, and see what it feels like, and change it up. Not that we go into every session with fully polished arrangements. Far from it. Piece by piece. What happens is that, in terms of material, we have at least half or two-thirds of a record, in one form or another, before we go into the studio and before we commit to the studio dates. Then I have to ask myself how these six pieces fit together, what they imply. If I was going to put these on a record, what else would I need to include to make that a coherent statement, so that they aren't just these disparate things that have come out in different ways over the last year, or year-and-a-half, or two years? Then I have to go on an active development of material that complements the core material that we've been developing, so that it makes sense being listened to as a set, on a record. But in every case, my intention is the same. From the inside, all I can do is to try my best to make a coherent statement and have it be something that has a sound and something that justifies people buying it and listening to it.

You've been living in New York now for about a year.

We had a little pied-à-terre for about half a year before the place we have now, and now we've been here a year full-time. You don't want to live your whole life and not live in New York.


Because you don't want to live your whole life and only live in one city. And New York is the jazz hub, and I want to know how the trains run. I want to be able to talk in a little bit of shorthand with people, and know my way around. And I want to hear Paul Motian a bunch of times, and he doesn't leave town. And I wanted to make some more friends and see what would come of it.

You were doing pretty well in Chicago.

Yeah, I could have stayed.

You own an apartment that previously belonged to Barack and Michelle Obama. You're a highly respected member of the jazz community. You're involved in NARAS. Things that to someone outside the business, it looks real good.

Yeah, on paper it looks good.

I realize there are limitations.

Most of the limitations are my own, and have to do with ... I'm just really hungry, and I don't want to miss anything, and I take the notion that time is flying to heart. If we were going to come to New York, we had to do it before my daughter was in school, and a certain number of logistical things had to fall into place, or be jammed into place. I haven't really thought of it as, 'We're moving to New York.' I've thought of it as a sabbatical, a creative dislocation that will last for maybe a short amount of time, maybe a longer amount of time. But it's all forward motion. I want to let it become what it wants to be. At least we will have been here, and we have made some really lovely friends that wouldn't have happened if we'd have stayed in Chicago. I've tried to keep up with my most important connections and friends in Chicago. I'm not very good at it. But I'm just a guy walking around, trying to figure stuff out, so I've got to forgive myself at a certain level for about 90% of this stuff.

Can you assess at this point what being in New York has done to you?

Some of it, I can. I've definitely been writing things that wouldn't have happened in Chicago—some lyrics for things. I wrote a lyric for 'The Face On The Barroom Floor' that's good, that's really good, that's suitable, and it's going to play a role in a much different kind of production than just some club set some place. A number of things have come around. And as I say, the friendships. You don't really know what creativity will come of that, but I can point to certain things. I don't want to name a bunch of names, like here's the five guys I've been hitting it with.

It's been a revelation about some my limitations, too. Or not limitations, necessarily, but propensities. One of the reasons why you move to another city is that you learn about yourself, and what your preferences are, and who you are, and what you really like. Man, I'm not getting out half as much as I thought I was going to on a given night. But I have a 3½ year old, and I want to be home for her, and I want to enjoy her while she's home, and I want to put her to bed and read stories to her, and by the time that happens ... she's a jazz girl, so it's 10:30, and now ...

You have to get up at 6.

Right. She wakes up. So it's like, 'am I really going to go out and make a session now?' Am I really going to come out to Brooklyn at 11 o'clock at night? Who's going to go with me?' [LAUGHS]

It's complicated.

It's complicated. You get a kid, and it changes things. It should change things. That's another reason to look at it and say, 'Ok, now I have a kid, and what's the best thing for my kid?' I can go back to Chicago and live there, and plan that after every tour I spend a half a week in New York at someplace—and then I go home. Rather than, 'We're here and all of us have to be here.' Because, man, she wants a swing set and a back yard, and she wants to go ride ponies. She's already going to pay a big price for me being on the road so much, and for the person I am. You've got to do right by your kids.

When you were younger, were you listening to a lot of the singer-songwriters? In any sense, is your lyric-writing to jazz solos informed by that?

I wish. I wish I was a better writer. I've got my moments, but I'd be a much better writer if I'd heard a lot more Joni Mitchell growing up, and Leonard Cohen, and that whole group. I just wasn't around it. So I've got to struggle against the natural ... what's the right word for it? High-handedness ... of what occurs to me. I've been working on a lot of new things with a lyric writing partner named Phil Galdston, who is very accomplished, very professional—more of a pop writer. We're a good balance with each other, because I'll come up with some idea, a direction or whatnot, then we'll start working on it. It's a good combination. I like a collaboration. I like to be with smart people, and learn from them, and integrate ideas together.

Are any of projects you've done in the past not documented that should be documented?

I have a lot of stuff I did at the Steppenwolf Theater that I wish would have a life beyond just the couple of nights that they occurred. More theatrical pieces. I wouldn't say there's a lot of gold buried in my journals. There's mostly a lot of junk that I just didn't get out.

Have you connected at all with the New York theater community?

I believe that an important section of my future will use theatrical aspects, and I think I'm going to create a vehicle that is going to help me get to a broader audience. But I haven't been shmoozing heavily. I am not really able to cast a really broad net and then have it winnowed down. It's more like individual people are being given to me as friends, as creative collaborators, and I am trying to be a real friend to them, first and foremost, and I am trying to learn from them. I do have a friend who is a very heavy director and dramatic coach, and we are working on an idea. I have a friend who's a cinematographer—we're thinking about maybe the same thing. I've got Phil Galdston, and we're writing stuff with a thing in mind. Of course, there's Laurence, who is integral to anything that's coming up. He actually moved here before I did. So it's specific people. Then it's whatever level of drive I have to actually put pen to paper, given the inspiration and the tasks that I've set myself.

Ted Panken interviewed Kurt Elling on June 15, 2009


July 07, 2009 · 0 comments

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