photo: Jeff Sciortino
It's probably a safe bet that Kurt Elling's young daughter has the best lullaby collection of any kid on the block. After all, her father is one of the most versatile, accomplished jazz singers working today. Of course, this insistent talent does have its drawbacks, particularly when it comes to family life. Instead of lulling his child to sleep with an inspired version of "Close Your Eyes," Elling is usually out in the world somewhere, lending his rich baritone voice and trademark "vocalese" (the art of putting words to improvised jazz solos) to the ears of the ticket-paying public.
"Jazz musicians, we're road dogs," says Elling, who at the time of our conversation had only recently returned from a trip to Taipei with his band (pianist Laurence Hobgood, bassist Rob Amster and alternating drummers Willie Jones and Kobie Watkins). "We have to be, because that's how it really works for us. We don't really make money from recordings. I actually have to sing for my supper. It's a good thing I enjoy it, most of the time."
Elling's absences from Chicago are noticed by more than just his family. The singer's once-regular appearances at the Green Mill have been few and far between in recent months, and all the upheaval in his life isn't likely to make things any easier. "A lot of things have happened recently," says the Chicago native. "My wife (professional dancer Jennifer Elling) and I moved our house, and we have a 10-month old, and a new manager, and a new drummer."
In light of all these changes, Elling decided to make another one; after 10 years and six albums (all Grammy-nominated) with the storied Blue Note label, he's decided to move to Los Angeles-based Concord Records. "It seemed like the right time to try something else, to switch it up," he says. "We're all still friends; it's still very groovy and we keep in touch."
Elling's first album for Concord is scheduled for release in early February 2007, and will be co-produced by multi-Grammy winning producer Joe Chiccarelli. While it's sure to be a hit among the jazz crowd, the singer isn't banking on any huge success with the mainstream. He never does. "There was a time when popular culture coincided with good taste, and that was a time when jazz was really hitting and it was very popular music," says the Hyde Park resident. "When Charlie Parker came along and made another situation happen with the music, that really changed it up. It made things a bit more difficult, because the art sort of surged forward. So, you know...we're accomplices in our own demise.
"I just don't think it's the most interesting thing in the world to wonder about it. I think jazz people are too preoccupied with how to save jazz...we need to get over it and concentrate on enjoying ourselves. That's really what pulls people to the music."
Elling's own enjoyment of jazz is clear; he speaks reverently of concerts he's seen and has been known to get into an almost dreamlike state when performing. He is also able to reach varied audiences by incorporating other types of art into his music; his shows often involve theater readings, poetry and spoken word, and his lyrics reference many literary and artistic greats. One of his most celebrated performances came in 2000, when he wrote and hosted an artistic showcase, entitled "This is Our Music, These are Our People," as part of the City of Chicago's two-week long millennial celebration. Elling has been commissioned by the Steppenwolf Theater for several stage projects, with more such ventures to come. "It's fun to have that kind of challenge, to see how it works out, if it works out. It happens pretty much just because of the enjoyment of it, as most successful things do."
With this kind of open attitude toward taking on projects, it's going to be tough to keep one of Chicago's favorite sons at home.
In the beginning:
The first time I performed as a jazz musician, I sat in with a vibraphone-led group at my undergraduate college [Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota]. I didn't know much about anything, but I knew the words to "All of Me" and I think "April in Paris". It was fun and exhilarating and I'm sure it sounded not very swinging.
What I'm listening to
A certain amount of classical music. I try to keep up on stuff that's really hip and hitting and that's also really good. I'm listening to a lot of capoeira music these days...somehow they figured out how to put martial arts to music. The music is so happy, man. It really intrigues me.
Coming soon to a stage near you
Elling will be one of several performers opening the Chicago Jazz Festival in a ticketed concert at the Chicago Symphony Center, entitled "John Coltrane 80th Birthday Anniversary: Ballads and Brass".