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Kurt Elling performs at the Green Mill

July 1, 1993

Kurt Elling performs at the Green Mill

By Doug Collier

By Doug Collier

Freelance Writer

Something mystic and comforting fills the air in the Green Mill Lounge each Wednesday night in Chicago. Kurt Elling’s singing booms and ricochets against the walls of this popular jazz joint. The patrons leave with an emotional experience they will not forget. Elling performs every Wednesday at the Green Mill when not touring. He just might change the future of jazz, but it will be

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no easy task.

In his quest for unheard-of sounds, Kurt Elling has evolved into the hottest jazz singer around. The 33-year-old Elling is half philosopher and half beat poet. During live shows and on CD, his vocals steam with emotion. This vocalist ninja effortlessly shifts from a warm baritone to an intense holler and returns with a calm whisper. This cat can sing and scat. So far, his singing has garnered him five Grammy nominations.

Jazzman, you take my blues away.

Elling discovered jazz while growing up and became more familiar with it by the time he reached college at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. When he heard a fellow student playing jazz in the same building, he became excited.

“When I was in college, some cats down the hall were playing Dex Gordon, Herbie Hancock and Dave Brubeck, people like that. It was a gas,” says Elling. “I’ve tried to take the best from all the greats including Mark Murphy, Joe Williams, Betty Carter, Don Hendricks and Frank Sinatra. I’ve just tried to take the best of what those singers had to offer, and absorb what I’ve been able to use.”

Sha-boom, daddy!

Elling’s love for jazz comes from his desire to be himself artistically. “Jazz is for musical individuals, unlike classical music where everyone is searching for a pristine, ideal sound. In jazz, you want to sound like yourself, and that continues to intrigue me,” says Elling. “The human exploration is an individual trying to become the best version of himself. Jazz is really a strong reflection of that. I’m just trying to play like myself.”

Elling’s live performances have been called spectacular. He fills the room with magical energy. On stage, he smoothly improvises, scats and can be quite animated. His band never knows what to expect.

“I go in a lot of directions. It may be confusing to some people when they come to my shows, but they leave saying, ‘He did a lot of cool stuff,’” says Elling. “When they come back the second time, they have the experience of the first time to lead them to expect the unexpected. They won’t know what they will get and are excited about it. They just know they will get me.”

Jazzman, you take my blues away.

Elling has recently released his fifth CD, Flirting with Twilight, which deviates from his lively, complex albums. Instead, Elling concentrates on spacious, gentle romantic ballads. The results happen to be very pleasing, and this CD should outsell his other works simply because more listeners will connect with a ballad. He shows us his softer side because he wanted to go a different avenue.

“I wanted to make a more complete statement than past records. This time, I wanted to choose a different direction. I wanted the initial idea completed as much as possible by the end of the record,” says Elling. Rhythm section Marc Johnson on bass and Peter Erskine on drums join Elling for the first time on Flirting with Twilight. Shaken, not stirred.

Jazz appeals to a very narrow audience in America. Smooth jazz garners a big following, but that genre and marketplace differs from jazz. A jazz artist never fills an arena. You will never find a jazz album on Billboard’s top 50, except for maybe the very beautiful Diana Krall. Elling has an idea on how to make it more popular in the states. “We need to fund art programs in grade school and high school. We have to hook up the kids. It has to be done as much as possible and as early as possible. Not only for the sake of jazz, but for the sake of civilization,” says Elling. “If you don’t have kids exposed to a higher level of creativity, then why should they develop a sensibility for it later on? People have to have stuff played for them early enough so they can fall in love with it when their mind is still focused.”

Jazzman, you take my blues away.

Subpar music can be part of the reason why jazz remains stagnant, according to Elling. “There’s too many records being put out, anyway. Everybody has the technology to make a record. There’s a lot of stuff out there that isn’t very good that makes people who are not jazzheads a little confused. They ask themselves, ‘If that’s jazz, then I don’t want to listen to it.’ I think if there was a lot of weeding done, and if people were exposed to the best possible music, then more people would be inclined to check it out.” He adds, “Jazz is a very difficult and focus-oriented music, and people don’t have as much time to focus. They don’t have enough time because of the accelerated input of everything. I really can’t blame people. It’s not their fault.”

Doobey-doo-doo.

Although singing jazz does not pay much money compared to other musical genres, Elling does not see himself leaving jazz anytime soon.

“I don’t plan on making a complete left-hand turn from what I do. I intend to make a long-term effort to become what I think I can become,” says Elling. On the possibility of crossing over to other musical genres, Elling says, “You want to have career stability. You don’t want to not have work. There’s the element of having fiscal responsibility to yourself, but I think I’m in the position of being able to do what I feel like doing.”

Elling spends about half the year touring and keeps it spread out. For example, he will go out four days and come back for a couple days. He might also go out for two days and come back for four days.

“It all depends on the circumstances,” says Elling. Some of the cities he plans on hitting to promote Flirting with Twilight include New York, Madison, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles and Seattle. Elling will also visit a few foreign markets such as Brazil, Canada and Europe.

Elling remains open to touring internationally. In fact, his plans to tour Lithuania got canceled because of “Attack on America.” Many blues artists feel more appreciated overseas than in America. Does Elling feel the same way? “In the states, jazz is a homegrown thing, so people have more access to it. They naturally take it more for granted. I definitely say we have some of the most enthusiastic audiences abroad, but I won’t say all of them,” says Elling. He recently played in Japan and states that the Japanese love the free expression of jazz. A few of the foreign markets Elling has played include France, Denmark, Germany and Australia.

Jazzman, you take my blues away.

Elling can be called a refreshing face on the jazz scene. He truly makes one think about jazz. Rock on, Kurt.

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