Kurt Elling, Jazz Messenger A Unique and Talented Jazz Singer for
By: John Shepler
I watched and listened in utter fascination as Kurt Elling
came on-stage, stepped well away from the microphone, and proceeded
to emulate what seemed to be a muted saxophone. Swaying from
side to side, you could see him holding an invisible horn in
his hands as his lips modulated the notes. This was clearly the
prelude of a most unusual musical experience.
Kurt Elling is so versatile that you may have heard several
of his pieces and not known it is the same man. One minute he's
singing scat, that rapid-fire sequence of syllables that take
the place of lyrics. The next minute, he's shifted into something
smooth and traditional like "April in Paris." When
he does, the resemblance to the legendary Frank Sinatra is uncanny.
I'm not sure what
to make of Kurt Elling, but I certainly do enjoy his music. I'm
speaking as a layman, here, with little knowledge of those smoky
clubs they call the "jazz scene." I doubt I'd even
know a true hipster from an impostor. Actually, I got hooked
on jazz when I discovered its calming powers over rush hour traffic
on Chicago's Eisenhower freeway. Most of the time, now, the car
radio is tuned to WNIJ, which broadcasts jazz, including Kurt
Elling, to northern Illinois in the evenings.
Barbara is the jazz aficionado. She discovered Kurt Elling
on WNIJ and bought his first release, "Close Your Eyes."
It's because of her that I found myself in the best seats in
the house, front row center in the balcony of the Rockford Theater.
Kurt Elling was center stage, with his collaborator and producer,
Laurence Hobgood, playing the grand piano, Rod Amster on bass
and Michael Raynor playing the drums. They are the Kurt Elling
If you have a chance to catch the Kurt Elling Quartet in performance,
don't hesitate. It's a treat you'll remember and want to repeat.
If you can't, the closest experience is any of the three albums,
"Close Your Eyes," "The Messenger," and the
most recent, "This Time It's Love."
Kurt Elling has beautifully resonant natural voice that, like
Frank Sinatra, would sound extraordinary with any band or type
of music. His ballads are creamy smooth and something hypnotic.
You find yourself lulled into a relaxed state, but conscious
of the words and message. While listening to the albums, it's
hard not to feel sorry for the lives being wasted in the "Ballad
of the Sad Young Men". His love for his new wife Jennifer
comes across clearly in "She's Funny That Way." I find
myself identifying with the sense of home and relationships in
"Where I Belong".
Interestingly, Kurt Elling has Rockford roots, as we do. He
introduced his parents, Henry and Martha Elling, who live here.
Perhaps it's just a quirk of fate that we've had the good fortune
to attend not one, but two performances of Kurt Elling this year.
Especially, when you consider that his star is accelerating skyward
in the music industry. At 31, he's already had two Grammy nominations.
His record label, Capitol's Blue Note, is said to be the premier
label in jazz. He's played Carnegie Hall and all the major jazz
festivals. You can often find him at his home base, the Green
Mill in Chicago. When he's not home playing club dates, his tours
take him as far away as New York, Los Angeles and Israel.
I suspect that we've only experienced the very beginnings
of what will be an exceptional and eclectic music career for
Kurt Elling. His on-stage performance gave us a taste of the
range of his theatrical as well as musical abilities. One of
his pieces recasts the famous "Friends, Romans, Countrymen"
eulogy for Caesar into the jive language of cool cats, hipsters
and beat poets. Here, Elling is paying tribute to Lord Buckley,
a poet-comedian who popularized that style of parody. Another
of Kurt Elling's pieces is a narrative based on the story "How
the Thimble Came to be God" by poet Rainer Maria Rilke.
The melody comes from a piece by Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond
and is called "Those Clouds are Heavy, You Dig?" You'll
find it on his "Close Your Eyes" album.
Probably the most fascinating characteristic of Kurt Elling's
talent, more than his ability to write a song or perform it,
is the command he has of his voice as a musical instrument. One
minute it's rumbling like thunder in the distance, the next it's
shrill as a trumpet. His style mixes standard vocal performance
with scat singing and improvised sounds, known as vocalese, that
he just seems to drop in to enhance the experience, or perhaps
just for fun. Out of nowhere, he makes his voice create the repetitive
scratchy sound of an old 78 record and, buried in the noise,
plays the tune of "La Vie en Rose," a song popularized
during the era of scratchy 78 RPM records.
Kurt Elling's second album, "The Messenger" is perhaps
the title that will become attached to his name. Not just for
the professional jazz musicians and serious collectors who recognize
him as one of the emerging greats of our time, but for the rest
of us on the periphery, who welcome someone who can help us also
enjoy the message of jazz music.
CD's of Interest:
Flirting with Twilight - His CD features a melodious
selection of romantic jazz standards.
Live in Chicago - If you have never heard Kurt sing
live, you've missed out on his best performances. This album
was recorded over three nights at Chicago's legendary Green Mill,
Kurt's regular hangout. It's a must have for any Kurt Elling
fan. To hear the real Kurt Elling, click through and check out
the sample tracks.
This Time It's Love - A collection of love songs including
"My Foolish Heart," "Where I Belong" and
more. This album garnered Kurt his third Grammy nomination for
Best Jazz Vocal Performance.
The Messenger - This highly acclaimed CD is perhaps
the hippest of his recordings.
Close Your Eyes - Kurt's first release from 1995 clearly
displays his considerable talent. A mix of ballads, rants and
vocalese, always with the right touch of emotion. His vocal control
Club Nocturne - by the Yellowjackets. Kurt Elling joins
them on the up tempo "Up From New Orleans" and the
aptly named "All is Quiet." Other guest artists include
Jonathan Butler, Brenda Russell and Richard Page.
Also visit these related
Kurt Elling - Come to the official web site of Kurt Elling.
You'll find discogrophy, about the band, touring information