Kurt Elling Interview

By: Jenifer Dravillas

JD: Kurt, I loved your CD, “Nightmoves.” Can you tell me how you came up with the vision and concept for the CD and how did you go about choosing the songs?

KE: Every time I have gone in to make a CD there’s been a consistent occurrence where there’s time in between discs and since I’m trying to be a writer I always have more tunes that the band and I are working on so there’s always at least a small collection of things that I think are worthy and ready when we start to think about going into the studio the next time.

In this case we had about 3 ½ years in between records so I had quite a lot of material that was ready to go and when I took a look at it and saw the similarities of themes that existed in the material we already had I realized that one of my favorite themes was coming into focus and that is life after dark. And then from there came the idea of well if I’m going that far let’s really try to make a storyline throughout this whole thing and see if I can draw all the pieces together to sort of make a screenplay of mine that’s told through music.

JD: I understand from your CD liner notes that you see a film score in this CD and that being the case which actor do you see playing the main character?

KE: (laughs) That’s a good question I hadn’t thought of. Not anybody too handsome! (laughs) He’s got to look like someone women would say no to him.

JD: So it’s not George Clooney?

KE: No, no. Not George Clooney. Can’t really aspire to that. Gosh I hadn’t even really thought of it from that angle. I guess I’d have to look at a database of actors.

JD: Well I think you could play him!

KE: Sure, I’d be happy to try. I certainly fit the bill of someone women could say no to! (laughs)

JD: Oh no, I meant in terms of being a performer, actor, and someone who can convey a message well – I think you do that brilliantly!

KE: Thank you.

JD: So, I absolutely loved “A New Body and Soul.” You obviously have amazing vocalese skills. Can you share how did you develop theses skills? And in particular can share the details on how “A New Body and Soul” was developed?

KE: Well, as you know, vocalese is sort of a modern day subset of poetry and lyric writing and as far as I know it’s unique to jazz music. And it could have only happened with the advent of recorded sound.

So there’s no way anybody could have even thought of it before we had records. John Hendricks is obviously, for anyone who is paying attention to such things, the best known and greatest of jazz lyricists and so what I do follows in his footsteps, in Annie Ross’ footsteps, and obviously Eddie Jefferson who sort of started the whole thing off along with King Pleasure – and in as much as I have skills I’ve developed them through just doing them and trying as hard as I can to write intelligently and follow the contours of jazz rhythm and jazz melody.

JD: I loved the part you threw in about “the itsy bitsy spider” – it was such a real moment.

KE: Hey, I was just telling it like it is!

JD: So basically you just listened to “Body and Soul” and worked off of that?

KE: I listened to Dexter Gordon’s tape because he recorded that tune maybe 12 or 13 times. So of them I had to find the solo that was not only the most emotionally evocative but the most feasible in terms of a technical aspect. It had to have lines in it none of which were so rapid fire as to be ultimately distracting from a vocally delivered version – you know sometimes musicians will play a line and it would just sound silly for somebody to sing it – or at least the lyric would be unintelligible because it would be too fast or too onerous on the listener.

And I’ve dealt with stuff like that in the past and I’ve overcome it and it seemed suitable to me at the time because the overall theme of the piece had a little inscrutability built into it. Whereas with this one I really wanted it to be as straightforward and I wanted people to be able to apprehend what I was going after as easily as possible. So I had to choose the right one of Dexter’s solos from that standpoint.

JD: Well I think you choose a really good one that was very effective and enjoyable to listen to.

KE: Thank you.

JD: I also really enjoyed the song “Where Are You, My Love?” I consider myself pretty well versed in jazz standards but I don’t think I had ever heard that song before. Why did you choose it and what does that song mean to you?

KE: Well it’s a Jimmy McHugh standard. And it is one of the lesser played tunes these days. And again I choose it because that’s another Dexter Gordon vocalese. I paraphrased the original lyrics and sort of updated them. And why did I choose it? I chose it because I had fallen in love with the way that Dexter Gordon plays it and it provides a lot of choices and makes it very easy for me because it’s like, well that sounds great, I’d love to sing that, and then if I can figure out some way to do it then I will.

JD: I also really enjoyed your quiet control on the bossa nova tune “And We Will Fly.” Can you tell us a bit about the in-studio recording process on that tune? I imagine it was probably a very interesting thing to record.

KE: It was! We messed around with a lot of different keys. As you may know this is not the first recording of this tune. In fact I’ll be happy to point you toward the original. It appeared on a beautiful Alan Pasqua recording the title of which I continually mistaken – it’s called “My New Old Friend” and I think you’d like it a lot. He plays a really lovely, lovely version of it.

Alan is a really great piano player out of Los Angeles and he’s a dear friend. I was listening to his record a whole lot and I was thinking I’ve got to figure out something I can do to that. And I knew there was a lyric in it but you’re right it was challenging because again one needs to make things sound as effortless as possible and just sing very quietly and to pronounce the words and to just do all those things to make it sound good.

So we had to find the right key, we had to find the right tempo setting, we had to figure out what the instrumentation was going to be before we got in there, and then we had to make sure that the sonic settings – the way we were presenting the voice – was neither too straightforward nor too laden with reverb and things like that. It had to be right in the pocket of it and I hope we got it right. It certainly is a distinctive sound given the rest of the record but I think it fits in as organic moment.

JD: That kind of reminds me of what Sinatra said after he recorded the Jobim record. “I haven’t sung that softly since I had the laryngitis!”

KE: (laughs) Yeah, Frank never had a bad day.

JD: I understand Sinatra is somewhat of an influence on you. If that’s true what exactly about Sinatra resonates with you?

KE: Well I don’t know how you could be someone in my little corner of the music world and not be influenced by Frank even if you never claimed him as an influence. The size of his tree took up so much light and air and space and you know you have all these seedlings trying to grow up in his shadow even when he was alive – your Steve Lawrences, your Bobby Darins – and now these days there’s a bunch of younger guys who are obviously trying to cash in one way or another on that stuff that Frank made.

My intention on this record on a couple of cuts was to reference him because I have never done so as directly as I have on this record – to reference him and to sort of tip my hat in his direction but also just to acknowledge the obvious – all the stuff that I just said – his thing was just so massive and you know delightfully so and rightfully so.

JD: I really enjoyed your versions of “In the Wee Small Hours” and “Change Partners/If You Never Come to Me.” I think you definitely put the Kurt Elling stamp on it while still giving that respectful nod to Frank. I like how “Change Partners/If You Never Come to Me” got arranged. How did the decision come about to put those 2 songs together?

KE: Well that was me. As happens fairly often in a collaboration of arrangement that Laurence Hobgood and I work on together you know one of us will say “Well here’s the big idea” and then the other one will say “Hmm, let me look at that for a minute.” And then we’ll work it out. And sure enough that’s sort of the way it went down on this.

I had a suggestion to check out Change Partners and sort of standing on its own it seemed a little corny to me and I couldn’t really figure out how it was going to go and when I went back to listen to the Jobim record on its own I was like “Well that’s how it’s going to go. We’re going to put these 2 tunes together because they tell a more interesting story.” And it allows me to reference another tune and to pull another Jobim thing into the mix and it hips up “Change Partners.” So when I put it to Laurence he was like “Hmm.”

So we got together and as always he came up with an ingenious new harmonic setting for an idea that I had and he made it sound hipper than it deserved to.

JD: Well I think you two pulled it off. It sounds great. How did you meet Laurence? I know you two have collaborated for a while.
And why do you think your collaborations work so well between you two?

KE: Well, we have common goals. We each want to play as well as we can play and I think struck up a working relationship at the most open moment of our individual lives. He was wide open at that point and needed something to spark his thing and I needed somebody to help guide the inspiration that I had because you know I never went to music school.

JD: Actually I was going to ask you what your musical training was – I wasn’t sure if you played any instruments.

KE: Well, I’m always working on the piano – but I’m not all that. (laughs) So I wouldn’t subject you to it. But I grew up singing and except for a couple years when I was in graduate school I’ve never stopped singing.

So I’ve developed a lot of those skills and I obviously have a number of ideas about what I think is appropriate and right about jazz singing that I’m working for – and like I was saying I was at a moment where I had a huge amount of ambition but I couldn’t get an appropriate gauge on my actual abilities at the time – let’s just put it that way. You know, when you’re young and you just want it and you’re hungry for it you’ll do anything to get it.

JD: I think I read somewhere that you just submitted a demo tape to Blue Note?

KE: Yes! You know a lot of people do it and I think I was just hyper-fortunate to present Bruce Lundvall with something that had a unique angle to it at a time when not many people who were male jazz singers under the age of 30 were doing anything of the kind. So Bruce, God bless him – obviously he’s harassed by countless people hoping that they are going be able to tell the kind of story that I am able to tell – he put it on and he liked it and he called me and I got a contract.

You know it’s hard if you don’t have an original idea to begin with to figure out how you are supposed to have an original idea. And I was very fortunate in that I learned from the best – I learned from Mark Murphy, Jon Hendricks, Betty Carter, and some great incredible original talent what kind of thing it meant to have an original idea and how to coalesce the great opportunities of the past in music into something that was uniquely my own.

JD: Had you always been interested in jazz? Or what tuned you on to jazz?

KE: It was when I was in college. I mean I did have some peripheral ideas about it – Tony Bennett and that kind of thing when I was much younger – but I had never met any jazz musicians until I was in college and graduate school and that’s really what turned it around for me.

JD: That’s great. Well that obviously shows your true innate talent for it – it didn’t really matter when you got turned on to it – you did and it was there!

KE: Yeah, I guess so. I sure did work hard!

JD: I also wanted to ask you about the Guess Who’s tune “Undun.” What made you decide to record that tune?

KE: Well I imagine you as a music fan have a lot of music in your mind from your past that you listened to when you were 12 or whatever age and stuff that sticks with you and occasionally it crops up in the soundtrack as your going through the day.

So for me as a professional musician if something crops up a couple of times and I find myself hearing resonant melodies in my mind then I think “well maybe I should do something with that” or “That was a hip tune, I wonder…” and then as often as not since I’m working on music my mind is very open and ready to try creative things with tunes like that that crop up. So as often as an idea says “hey, what about this tune” attached to that idea comes “hey, what about this tune in this way?” So it’s just more a matter of paying attention.

JD: I found the tune “The Sleepers” on your CD to be a very interesting tune. Why did you choose this Walt Whitman poem and tell me a little bit about Fred Hersch and how he developed the music for it?

KE: Well are you familiar with the recording that Fred and I made a couple years ago of all Walt Whitman pieces? That’s going to answer your question. Fred essentially created a small scale oratorial based upon Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” The setting for it was 2 voices, rhythm section, cello, and 4 horns.

We’re friends and we’ve played a number of duo gigs together in the past and he apparently heard my voice singing Whitman and wrote the lion’s share of the piece with just me in mind delivering this music so I want to say maybe almost 3 years ago now when we really went into the studio to record it. But it’s under Fred’s name and I believe the whole recording is called “Leaves of Grass” and this piece “The Sleepers” what we call in jazz the 11 o’clock tune – meaning it’s the beautiful ballad that you play before just before the big finale with the drum solo and everything.

It certainly works as a standalone piece. And I was very happy to have Laurence rearrange the piece in a different key for the string quartet – just because it’s beautiful and I love to sing it and you know, I’m not one of the guys in music who can get really angry and write really angry protest music. I can get really angry and I certainly have gotten really angry about the way things are going in our country and about what we’re doing to people and the role that we’re playing in messing things up.

But it’s not my gift to be a Neil Young. And I’m not a good Bob Dylan and I’m not a good Bruce Springsteen – I just can’t pull that stuff off and I wish I could. But what I can do is present material like “The Sleepers.” I just feel “The Sleepers” is first of all, Whitman, as an American poet as maybe the greatest American poet, embraced all beings, embraced every person from every walk of life, from every creed – he was all-encompassing. And that’s a heavy thing.

And then to be able to sing those words and to present those words and to be a part of trying to balance things out a little bit in the world. You know, to think of the beauty of all the people sleeping and at peace – you see that’s the kind of thing that I can do, so then I do it in as much as I can.

JD: It’s nice to have something beautiful and positive to offset some of the ugly things going on today and the imagery is so beautiful and as you mentioned the quartet supports it so beautifully. “The Sleepers” is really nice, I really enjoyed it.

KE: Thank you.

JD: You wrote in your liner notes that “the moment we stop trying so hard and give ourselves up to the flow of things, everything we are suddenly becomes easy…” For you, when was that defining moment and how did it change you?

KE: (laughs) Well, I think it happened a year and a half ago when my daughter was born.

JD: I thought so, but I just wanted to check.

KE: Yeah, you know I’m kind of an open book. I mean, how did it change me? I’m a lot happier; I’m a lot more relaxed. I used to beat myself up about not being the kind of writer who could do a protest song because I was so angry and because I felt I wanted to do more. And you know, I was plenty busy. I mean I was a delegate to the Democratic convention.

I was a Kerry delegate for the last round. I definitely worked hard on his campaign. And I definitely write checks and try to keep abreast and go to meetings and such and make sure I’m not just an ivory tower artist. But now I’m just not as angry in the same way. I just as frustrated – but I don’t have to carry it around with me every hour and feel defeated by it. And I think that’s one of the great gifts that little children can give to parents is…man, I just feel so much better.

JD: I know what you mean. They help to put everything into perspective. If I can go back to the CD and be a bit trivial – I really liked the photography. Is that Chicago and what time of day is it? What was that photography session like?

KE: We did it in New York but I think we made it look as if it could be any place. It was because I was the only person who had to fly and the guy that we had was super cool and his whole team was very professional. I mean I’ve had really good photography sessions. I’ve had a couple of times where I’ve had a lot of laughs.

And then I’ve had stuff that just doesn’t work out. I don’t have a natural, red carpet runway attitude about photography. And I would actually prefer it if I could get live action photographs for more of my record covers because I feel that the place where I’m most naturally emotive and can present a sort of heightened personality on film – but that’s because there is an audience there and you know I’m singing and so I’m telling a story and my eyes are lit up and what have you.

Whereas in a photography session you’re sort of sitting there and they’re taking pictures and you’re not talking, you’re not singing, you’re not telling a story and yet the request is that you get something happening. (laughs) And I’m not a runway model and so it isn’t as natural for me as it isn’t I think for a lot of musicians to sort of get a groovy feeling out of the fact that “hey, it’s my photograph,” “hey, baby!” you can sometimes feel really fake about it. So I’m really happy with the photographs as well because they didn’t really push me to do anything that wasn’t going to naturally happen anyway.

JD: Were they taken at dusk? There’s definitely a feeling of nighttime.

KE: It was actually a day long session so some of the photos were actually taken at dusk and then they ended up treating some of the photographs. They were well aware of what the theme of the record was.

JD: I know you recently left Blue Note to join Concord Records. May I ask what prompted that change and what are you looking forward to getting from your new association with your new Concord family?

KE: Well I mean it’s no bad vibe. I was signed to 6 records at Blue Note and we made 6 and at the end of the 6 I think they would have been perfectly happy to maintain a working relationship but you know so many things were changing for me around that time. After 10 years I hired new management and the other manager and I are still pals but you know 10 years is a long time and you sort of get the feeling of what somebody can accomplish and you get a feeling that maybe you need a couple more things to happen.

So we changed managers, changed apartments – because of the baby we needed laundry in the unit – and it just seemed like well we made these records that we came to make with these guys and I sort of know the level of commitment that they have and I understand that and they understand me but wow it sure would be great to shake it up and to take some risks and to find out what else is possible – and so that was really my motivation in stepping away and there was no bad vibe.

We still email each other and I know all the cats over there so I mean you know it’s just hey let’s shake it up. I mean I’m a jazz musician – it’s what are you supposed to do after 10 years or so it’s like what are you waiting around for?

JD: So change is good!

KE: Change is cool! You know, you gotta find out.

JD: What advice would you give to young aspiring jazz vocalists? And what would you say to your daughter if she told you she wanted to pursue that as a career?

KE: (laughs) Well, let’s cross that bridge when I come to it. The only advice that is appropriate as a blanket statement for people is to want it more, to work harder, to be more disciplined, and to just do it. And do it harder than anybody you have the opportunity to meet. Because all the specific answers to questions like, “should I get a manager,” “should I blah, blah, blah,” etc., all that stuff is really secondary to the willingness of the aspiring artist to become something that’s worth hearing.

To have a full life. To learn what it means to be a jazz singer. To learn the history of the music. To understand what made Joe Williams great. To understand what made Betty Carter so vitally important and such a great example of jazz singing. And what are you going to take away from that? Not just acknowledging it but also what is it that you’re going to incorporate into your work? You know, understanding yourself and who you really are and what it is that you are trying to offer people and to offer yourself?

You know there are just no short cuts when it comes to that. And I get the feeling with a lot of people that they want to take a lot of short cuts and they hope it will happen right away. Now, I certainly hoped when I was young that it was going to happen fast for me and that a lot of stuff was going to happen but I put my nose to the wheel to ensure that something like that was going to happen.

And I took all the stupid gigs that were possible. And I played in front of people who wouldn’t listen. And I got paid nothing and I paid the band out of that nothing. And you know, everyone’s story is going to be different on how that goes down but the important thing is the motivation and the willingness to follow up on it.

JD: Can I ask your opinion about the jazz scene in Chicago in particular? How would you describe it?

KE: It’s a little tough for me to get a beat on it these days because I’m leaving town all the time. It’s not like the old days for me when I was able to get out and check everybody out and see what it was like. Man I haven’t been out to a club – if I’m not playing it – you know we’ve got a baby so it’s really tough because Jennifer is picking up the slack all the time when I’m on the road so how often am I going to feel justified in going out and checking out music and here she is stuck again and I’m at home and I’m supposed to be pitching in.

JD: If the fans in the Chicagoland area want to come see you perform live, where will you be appearing?

KE: All the dates should be on my website http://kurtelling.com/touring but this weekend I’m with Orbert Davis at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago and that’s with the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic orchestra. June 6th I’m at the Green Mill which might be one of the only times this year. And then I think I’ve got something at Millenium Park this summer but I can’t remember where it is.

JD: And are you going to be touring to promote “Nightmoves?”

KE: We already did about a 10-week tour starting last February but I am following up on that. I’ve got a bunch of dates in June and then we do July and almost half of August over in Europe.

JD: Kurt, do you mind if I end this interview with the ten questions by Bernard Pivot adapted from French the intellectual and novelist Prust and that now host James Lipton from “Inside the Actor’s Studio” asks every guest?

KE: Sure if it interests you!

JD: OK, here we go. Kurt Elling, what is your favorite word?

KE: Daddy. I think that’s my favorite word these days.

JD: What is your least favorite word?

KE: Phone!

JD: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

KE: You know what, I really love excellent conversation. Or I like to overhear two really smart people talking (laughs) and be able to jump in when I can. Conversation is really the # 1 spot.

JD: What turns you off?

KE: Chores

JD: What sound or noise do you love?

KE: Anything my daughter is doing.

JD: What sound or noise do you hate?

KE: You know what, people abusing each other. The lack of
compassion in life is a heavy thing.

JD: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

KE: I would really like to be a long distance runner. That would really fortify me in a lot of ways. I mean I like to be a stage performer but there is something about marathon running that really turns me on.

JD: What profession would you not like to do?

KE: Anything dealing with hospital waste.

JD: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

KE: (laughs) You were right!

JD: Kurt Elling, thank you so much for your time. Again, I thoroughly enjoyed “Nightmoves” and I look forward to all your other future projects!

KE: Thank you. You’ve been very kind.

Check out more great interviews here!


In addition to working with his own quartet, Kurt Elling has spent recording and/or performing time with an array of artists that includes Terrence Blanchard, Dave Brubeck, The Clayton/Hamilton Orchestra, Benny Golson, Jon Hendricks, Fred Hersch, Charlie Hunter, Al Jarreau, David Liebman, Joe Lovano, Christian McBride, Marian McPartland, The Bob Mintzer Big Band, Mark Murphy, John Pizzarelli, Kurt Rosenwinkel, and The Yellowjackets. He has written multidisciplinary works of art for The Steppenwolf Theater and for the City Of Chicago.

Moreover, Kurt Elling is a former National Trustee and National Vice Chair of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (The GRAMMYS) and was artist-in-residence for the Monterey Jazz Festival’s 2006 season. Kurt Elling’s rich baritone voice spans four octaves and displays an astonishing technical facility and emotional depth.

Elling has an awesome command of rhythm, texture, phrasing, and dynamics, often sounding more like a virtuoso jazz musician than a mere singer. His repertoire ranges from his own compositions to modern interpretations of standards, both of which can be the springboard for free form improvisation, scatting, spoken word and poetry. As composer and lyricist, Elling has written scores of his own compositions and set lyrics to the songs and improvised solos of many jazz masters. In addition to the compositional work he has done with collaborator-in-chief, Laurence Hobgood.

Elling has collaborated in the creation of new pieces with Jon Clayton, Fred Hersch, Bob Mintzer, Charlie Hunter and Orbert Davis, among others. One of Kurt Elling’s major contributions is as a writer and performer of vocalese, the art of putting words to improvised solos of jazz artists.

The natural heir to jazz pioneers Eddie Jefferson, King Pleasure, and Jon Hendricks, Elling is the contemporary voice in vocalese, setting the solos of Wayne Shorter, Keith Jarrett, Dexter Gordon, Pat Metheny, and others to his own deeply spiritual and compelling lyrics, an approach that reminds us of the beauty of the original music and opens us up to a fresh vision. Elling infuses his lyrics with passion, humor, and a startling intellectual depth, often incorporating images and references from writers such as Rilke, Proust, Kerouac, Rumi, Neruda and Kenneth Rexroth into his work.

Kurt Elling has been featured in profiles for CBS Sunday Morning, for CNN, and in hundreds of newspaper and magazine reviews and articles. The New York Times called his shows at Birdland “good, battering entertainment.”(1/99) Said the Chicago Tribune, “Kurt Elling is going to change many listeners’ minds on the meaning and purpose of Jazz singing.”(1/96) Playboy Magazine named Elling “the male Jazz vocalist of the Nineties.” (10/98) More recently, The Guardian (UK) declared, “Elling is an omnicompetent artist of almost ruthless efficiency … (He) is truly a musical phenomenon.” (2/02) And Jazz Review (UK) raised the possibility that “Elling may be the greatest male Jazz singer of all time.” (1/02)

In responding to such critical adulation, Kurt Elling says, “I know the places where I need to work to get better. What’s really working for me is the fact that I have tried to learn from the great masters of jazz singing. If I can digest what people like Mark Murphy, Jon Hendricks, Betty Carter, Joe Williams and Eddie Jefferson have done and can contribute something valuable to the tradition then that will be reward enough.”

-Gordon Drummond January 15, 2007


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