Jazz Master of the Month: Kurt Elling

Mar 2, 2016

Kurt Elling is a baritone singer with a four octave range. He sings vocalese, the art of performing words over improvised jazz solos.

Elling has won the “Downbeat” critics poll thirteen times, the Jazz Times reader poll eight times and the Downbeat readers’ poll seven times. Elling won his first Grammy in 2010 in the category Best Jazz Vocal Album for his recording, “Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings The Music Of Coltrane and Hartman." He has also received the Jazz Journalist Association Award for male singer of the year eight times.

Born in Chicago on November 2, 1967, Elling spent his early years singing in choirs and playing drums, french horn, and violin. He recalls watching Tony Bennet with Woody Herman’s big band on TV and imagining himself in that same position. While attending Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota majored in history and minored in Religion. He also sang and toured with a 70 piece a cappella choir and began listening to the music of Herbie Hancock, Dexter Gordon, Ella Fitzgerald, Dave Brubeck and many others.

After Elling received his undergraduate degree, he went on to pursue a masters in Philosophy. In January 1992 he left school one credit short of his masters to follow his then-night-gig-passion of singing jazz. After submitting a cassette demo tape, Elling was signed with Blue Note records in 1995, releasing his debut album “Close Your Eyes.” He went on to release over six albums for Blue Note until signing with Concord in 2006. By that time he had performed a duet with Al Jarreau “Take Five” which was released on DVD and appeared on TV. Concord released his album “Nightmoves” in 2007 followed in 2009 by “Dedicated To You: Kurt Elling Sings The music of Coltrane and Hartman.

Elling is arguably the most prominent male vocalist of his generation, with many notable recordings to confirm that status. But it seems he is most comfortable, and shines brightest, when performing live with his own band. Singing in multiple languages (German, French and Spanish), Elling literally captivates his live audiences. He accomplishes breathtaking vocal feats, from breathy romantic ballads to flawless up-tempo romps.

Elling married in 1996 and has a daughter that was born in 2005. The couple purchased a condominium in Hyde Park, Chicago from president Barrack Obama and later moved to New York in 2008.

When David Accomazzo of the Phoenix New Times asked Elling what makes a good song, he responded:

“Well, there are certainly categories that seem like they're necessary. A song that's really going to last, it has to have the ability to create an emotional resonance in the listener. That, and does it sound good? There are 10 million ways to do it wrong and there's one way per song to do it right. And you know it when it's right. You just know it. All the specifics of things while you're working on a song, well, you can tell in your intuition. That's not good enough. Whatever the piece requires, you have to fill in with quality and spirit and panache — whatever it is that composition needs. You know it when you've arrived and you know it when it hasn't yet arrived.”