KURT ELLING: VOCALISTíS ďPASSION WORLDĒ
APPEALS TO AUDIENCES AROUND THE GLOBE



Photo by Anna Webber

By Paul Freeman [February 2016 Interview]

Grammy Award-winning Kurt Ellingís velvety voice is much in demand all over the globe. So he plays 200 dates a year. That provides a growing experience that the jazz singer values tremendously. He explores the musical artistry of various cultures.

During his travels, Elling performed with such artists as Franceís accordion virtuoso Richard Galliano and Germanyís WDR Orchestra. That led to his discovering new material. Those artists, as well as others, including Cuban trumpet legend Arturo Sandoval, guest on Ellingís latest album, ďPassion World.Ē JazzTimes called the record, ďA kaleidoscopic travelogue into heart and soul.Ē

It features love songs from a number of countries, in several languages, ranging from a Scottish folk tune to Brahms to Jobim to a swinging Sinatra number to U2.

Elling, a baritone with a four-octave span, believes music to be a uniquely profound way to communicate love.

Raised in Rockford, Illinois, Elling was influenced by his father, a Lutheran churchís music director. Elling attended Divinity school.

While attending graduate school, Elling sat in with Chicago jazz musicians and realized that he could best contribute to the world as a singer, composer, lyricist and practitioner of the art of vocalese (adding lyrics to improvised instrumentals).

Making a swift and dramatic impact, he has earned 10 Grammy nominations, winning in 2009, in the category of Best Vocal Jazz Album, for ďDedicated to YouĒ (on the Concord Jazz label). And heís the perennial winner in DownBeat Magazineís poll.

Elling, 48, now lives in New York with his wife, ballet dancer Jennifer Carney, and their daughter.

POP CULTURE CLASSICS:
How did the concept for ďPassion WorldĒ take shape?

KURT ELLING:
Well, I travel all the time. Iím a touring musician. And as I go around the world, I try to learn a little something as I go along and not just take up all the available air. And there are, as you can well imagine, incredible musicians around the world. And so I try to check in with that situation. Also, I like to connect with every audience, as deeply as I can. And jazz can be a very difficult thing to listen to, even for very experienced jazz people, let alone for people who are listening in a different language and youíre a singer and youíre trying to bring them lyrics and feelings and important messages, ones that seem important on the inside. So it helps me to learn things in different languages, even if itís just phonetically, and to make myself vulnerable to other audiences by trying to reflect back to them, the genius of their own culturesÖ and to do that, oftentimes, in new jazz settings, new arrangements. So itís a way to show respect. Itís a way to encourage people to have a good experience on a given night. And it also teaches me some stuff.

PCC:
So in studying love songs of various cultures, from around the world, did you find it interesting - both the similarities and the unique flavors they might have?

ELLING:
Iíd say thatís fair to say. And the play of ideas. You know, you want to keep on improving. You want to keep learning things and keep enlarging your scope of your understanding of life. And thatís a great way to do it, both by traveling and by learning music and learning some of the secret signs, some of the shorthand that people have in different cultures.

PCC:
Being exposed to so much music, what was the song selection process like for this project?

ELLING:
As usual, we had more compositions than we had room for on the record. It started with some performances in which I was able to successfully invite Richard Galliano, who is a great accordion virtuoso from France. And to invite him on some concerts, that made sense for me to then investigate recordings heíd made in the past, compositions heís written. I wrote a couple of lyrics for those things. And also some standards from chansons, so that heíd feel comfortable. And then, Iíve seen him in a number of international settings and I know that heís ultimately flexible in his approach. So we had some tangos, and we had some things from Brazil, all kind of things from around the world.

And thatís really where the concept came from, originally, to collect some of these things, not just to have them be piecemeal charmers or encores in different countries, but to start to put them together in some kind of coherent whole. From there, I continued to travel and, as you can hear on the recording, Iíve got things from my friends in Germany with the WDR Orchestra. I had gigs with them. So there was a lot of kind of collecting along the way. And then itís a matter of bringing together what I think of as the most coherent, final collection of things.

PCC:
From your perspective, why is music perhaps the most eloquent expression of love or passion?

ELLING:
Well, other than love itselfÖ music is a physical expression that has a physical impact upon the listener. Sound travels in waves through the air. This is not abstract. This is scientific fact. And it makes physical contact with the eardrumÖ and with the heartÖ and with the rest of the body. And those sound waves can be aimed and modulated in such a way as to create a more harmonious space inside the listener, inside the audience. And then you have this group experience of people listening and interacting. Itís not just passive. Itís vibrating and feeding back to the band, emotions and feelings and memories, in a way that more static art forms canít.

Architecture, you certainly feel elated in a space thatís beautifully designed. But not all spaces that human beings spend their time in are beautifully designed, just as not all music is beautifully designed. But architecture, you must walk through it. What if youíre blind? Music can even get through to the deaf, because of the sound vibrations, because they can feel the beat. They can understand the rhythm of things. So visual art doesnít hold that. Literature doesnít really hold that in the same way. Poetry does not. Although poetry and music combined can be a very, very potent force, indeed.

PCC:
What is the process of breathing fresh life into vintage tunes and putting your own stamp on them, while retaining their emotional essence?

ELLING:
Well, there are several ways. In the first place, since I listen to music all the time and itís my vocation, as much as it is my job, then I revel in the whispering of new ideas into my ear, things that surprise me, musical memories that come up and begin to have their own flavor, their own malleability, a malleability of harmonies and rhythms that complement the melody.

Maybe people have only heard, maybe Iíve only heard a specific melody, in a specific way, i.e. the way Dexter Gordon played it or the way The Beatles played it or the way the originators played it. And well-constructed music has a lot of flexibility in it. You can turn it to more contemporary and, for me, more personal ends, just because the whispering comes in the ear. So first thereís the inspiration of it.

Iím also fortunate to be surrounded by people who are uniquely gifted, talented, who have been able to complement my vision and help me follow through on things that I hear in a more rudimentary fashion, on occasion. And then, of course, the expression of that comes when these lethal, beautiful experts of instrumental playing bring their own ideas and their own sensibilities to what is, at first, an inspiration, and then written down on a page, which is not music - itís notation. And then they make it music with me. And we do that with interplay with one another. So thereís no one way to go about it, but I would say those would be the three main pillars of what make it possible.

PCC:
And youíll sometimes write new lyrics for some of the songs?

ELLING:
Often, yeah. Yeah, thatís one of the things Iíve been fortunate enough to get involved with.

PCC:
And that again, just makes it more personal.

ELLING:
Well, you want to have a signature thing. Youíre trying to explore and declare who you are, as a human being, walking through the world. And youíre trying to do that through music and through lyrics and through the way you present yourself. And so, the more substantially individualized the experience - for me, that is to say - the more clearly I can share an experience thatís very personal with an audience.

PCC:
The four-octave voice, how early on did you realize you were blessed with an extraordinary gift, an instrument that could be polished into something special?

Photo by Anna Webber

ELLING:
Well, my father was a church musician, so I always was in a situation where there was music. And I was always in choirs. And for the vast majority of my childhood and my youth, I was singing, just because it felt good. And it was what my friends and I were all involved with. And it was my fatherís vocation. It was a natural thing to be a part of that and to embrace that and adopt it. I was happy without even knowing how happy I was. I was singing without really recognizing, ďOh, Iím self-consciously singing.Ē

So those have been beautiful benefits of that time. And I continue to go down the road, because I felt good, physically and emotionally, doing it. And it wasnít really until I was leaving graduate school and sitting in at jazz clubs in ChicagoÖ And the older musicians, much, much better-established musicians on the Chicago scene, embraced me over and over and invited me back, welcomed me back, encouraged me, put the possibility in front of me, gave advice and told me that I belonged to that world. So I started to have an idea that, in fact, that was where I was headed. And thatís when I started to work on a solo idea of singing, in earnest.

PCC:
The involvement with church music early on, did that give you a lasting spiritual foundation for your music?

ELLING:
Well, I suppose, in as much as it came very heavily freighted with that kind of message. I donít subscribe to a specific Ecclesiastical idea at this point. Iím a jazz musician and my intellectualized thoughts run much more to the expression of my own experience. Itís an experience thatís been attenuated and improved and enriched by having a family, having incredible, great fortune as a musician, having great friendships, having tried to read the best of the Western literature, both in terms of philosophy and in terms of literature and poetry, having studied history and having come to terms, in my own way, with my experience and trying to be present in this moment, trying to be compassionate with myself and other people. So, in as much as the gifts that were given to me, in my childhood, continue to resonate, then certainly. My father set a great example of piety and of humility and of service and I continue to try to emulate that.

PCC:
Once you began to get this encouragement during your college years, in terms of your potential in the jazz world, did it seem like it was a matter of choosing a different career path? Or did it seem like you had found your calling?

ELLING:
It was a surprise. I thought I was maybe going to be an historian or write philosophy books that nobody was going to read. Or perhaps work with World Council of Churches or something like that. I didnít really have a very clear focus of my position in that world, in large part, because I was not comfortable with the idea of speaking ex-Cathedra or speaking from the pulpit, telling people how they were supposed to live, putting myself as an authority of some kind in that realm. I wanít then and Iím not now comfortable with that position.

But I could see very quickly and very clearly, thanks to the Chicago jazz musicians, who encouraged me, and thanks to the great singers who had come before me, who encouraged me, either simply through their records - a la Joe Williams, Mel Torme, Frank Sinatra - or in person, people like Andy Bay, Jon Hendricks, Mark Murphy, Annie Ross, people who have been kind to me, year after year. Sheila Jordan. Nancy King. People who embraced me. Here I am, decades younger than they are and I want to honor them and I want to honor sacrifices that they made and the history that they have created, by following through on some of the visions of theirs that perhaps went a little bit unrealized. And also by being myself, in light of who they have been. And I think thatís a part of my vocation as much as anything else.

PCC:
Finding your own distinctive style - was that something that you consciously pursued? Or does it have to evolve on its own?

ELLING:
I donít think of it as, ďI need to establish a style.Ē I think of it as the continuing exploration of who I am and what I feel is important for me to sing, on a given occasion. Whether thatís in the studio of in front of audience or whether thatís sitting in or whether thatís on somebody elseís gig, my task is to be prepared, to sing as well as I can sing and to be who Iím supposed to be.

PCC:
How did you get into the world of vocalese and how has that informed your style overall?

ELLING:
That came through Jon Hendricks and the work he did with Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. And Jonís been extremely generous with me. And Iím in his indebted to him, for my life, not only on a personal level, but just because of the things he created, as an incredible writer and a craftsman of words. As soon as I figured out what he was doing, as soon as I figured out that Kenny Jefferson wrote lyrics to an alto saxophone solo and made it into a completely new way of being elegant and virtuosic, as soon as I learned that Jon Hendricks was taking Horace Silver pieces and writing vocalese lyrics, as soon as I realized that Annie Ross was taking Sonny Stitt and creating new situations, then I said, ďOh, I want to try that!Ē

And, in retrospect, it was a stroke of luck and ingenuity, on my part, just to realize that it was kind of open season there. Itís such a young form of lyric-writing. It could only have happened with the advent of recorded sound, because what youíre doing is taking implausibly perfect melodies - implausible because they were improvised by great players like Dexter Gordon or Miles Davis or Lester Young - and youíre listening back to them, transcribing them, learning them, and writing a lyric to fit over that which was improvised. And thatís such a young field that there are worlds and worlds, in terms of content, that one can strive to apprehend and broadcast in that realm. And since thatís so open, itís another way for me to explore my own abilities as a writer and my own abilities, in terms of themes and the things that I find myself writing about, the unasked-for punchlines to jokes I didnít know I was telling. And thatís a real thrill.

PCC:
I read that you had purchased a condo from Barack Obama in Chicago, before his presidency. Is that true?

ELLING:
Yes, thatís true.

PCC:
And then performing at the Obama administrationís first state dinner, that must have been a thrill.

ELLING:
Iíve been very fortunate. I got lucky at first. Willie Pickens, the great Chicago piano player, invited me to sing as part of a benefit for Barack, when he was running for State Senator. And I made a nice and welcome, friendly acquaintance with him at that point. And I did a handful more, when the occasions permitted, up to and on through when he was running for President.

And Iím very proud of the job heís done, by and large. And Iím proud of any small association with the Obama family. We still do own the apartment in Chicago. We rent it out to a nice family, the parents are teachers at the University of Chicago. Even while weíre here in New York, in our rental place, Iím still happy to have held onto that other place. I get to sing again at the White House for the International Jazz Day thatís coming up this year.

PCC:
I guess New York provides a stimulating creative atmosphere.

ELLING:
Youíve got to keep your mind on the game, man, because there are hot players all over the place here.

PCC:
Whatís the effect you most want to have through your music?

ELLING:
I donít know if thereís just one. What Iím hoping is to be as articulate as I can be in the musical and lyrical continuation of a genre of music I believe in, that I believe has important lessonsÖ not just lessons, that sounds too pedantic, important reminders of ingenuity and joy and humanity and emotional life and exploring, fearlessness and overcoming.

I think this music is so exciting and Iím so humbled, and proud at the same time, to have a seat at the table. Iím thrilled that I have the interest of the handful of people who care about such things, and that I have, I think, by and large, the respect of my peers. I know that Iíve been given many, many gifts, from the living musicians who have preceded me and that I want to continue to honor them by creating things of beauty that I didnít expect and that are unexpected to the audience.

PCC:
So the rewards are inner satisfaction, the respect of your peers and acceptance from the listeners?

ELLING:
Well, man, you know, I want to turn people on. Some of my favorite things are when fans come up and say, ďMan, I never listened to so-and-so beforeĒ or ďI never understood this record and now youíre singing it and I went back and now I really love that record,Ē whatever instrumental record that might be.

And thatís a joy for me, a joy for me to point people to Jon Hendricks, who may not have heard of him or heard him. Itís a joy for me to point them to Mark Murphy, to Joe Williams. Itís a joy for me to point people to Dexter Gordon. Itís a joy for me to carry that and to continue to try to live up to that standard, while, at the same time, looking to the future and trying to understand the possibilities that have gone unnoticed so far.

PCC:
And to his point, what have been the most challenging aspects of your life in music?

ELLING:
Fatigue [laughs]. Road fatigue, probably. I do more than 200 nights a year on the road. And airplane seats are rough. And itís tough to keep your posture and itís tough to get as much sleep as you need. But thatís the life Iíve chosen. And I embrace it.

PCC:
And as you continue to travel, is it possible there will be a ďPassion World 2Ē?

ELLING:
Oh, I think ultimately. But you may have noticed that, in ďPassion World 1Ē thereís nothing from Asia, nothing from the Middle East, nothing from Africa. Thatís incredibly massive swaths of music.. And itís tough to say ďPassion WorldĒ and not embrace all of it. So in as much as thereís a ďPassion World 2Ē on the way, thatís the kind of stuff that needs to take place. And that means a lot more study and a lot more travel and a lot more paying attention.

For the latest news and tour dates, visit www.kurtelling.com.