Chicago-based jazz vocalist and six-time Grammy Award nominee Kurt Elling may be a hep cat, but his knowledge and love of classic big band sounds run deep. But, as something of a new-traditionalist, he and his ensemble breathe new life into classic jazz standards with a forward-thinking approach.
“I think the majority of jazz fans are people who want to hear music that’s related to the tradition, that grows out of the tradition, but that points to the future,” says Elling, 39. “By that definition, it’s a really large area that you could move in.
“You can’t really overstate the amount of skill and swinging intensity that it takes to make a big band sound the way that it’s supposed to sound,” he adds. “That deep, median, Basie, swingin’ thing is so much fun for me to be a part of.”
The singer currently plays with a 17-piece big band, along with his Chicago-based quartet featuring pianist Laurence Hobgood, bassist Rob Amster, and drummer Frank Parker. The entire ensemble is due in town for a Friday night concert followed by the Spoleto Soirée at the Gaillard.
“I’ll be doing some favorite charts and Frank Sinatra tunes in the first half of the show, which is great fun, because that stuff never gets old,” Elling says. “These players are excellent at playing it, too. During the second half, we’ll be doing some modern charts — based on a lot of things I’ve done and a lot of originals and standards I’m known for. We’ll open up a bit and point toward the future possibilities of what the ‘big band sound’ could be.”
Elling grew up with music in the home. His father is a church musician, and he and all of his siblings were given instruments and lessons. “I don’t remember a time before singing,” he says. “I am told I was making up parts and harmonies to the hymns in church, but that’s probably apocryphal information. But music was always a joy to me, and I did it because it was natural and made me happy.”
Planning a career in the academic world, he first became interested in jazz while attending Gustavus College in Minnesota and took to it naturally. Back home in Chicago, he began to develop his idiosyncratic “scat,” “rant,” and “vocalese” (writing and singing lyrics to previously recorded instrumental solos) styles in the smaller clubs of Chicago and the Midwest.
In 1995, he signed to the Blue Note label and issued his debut album, Close Your Eyes. His latest Blue Note release is Man in the Air, released in 2003.
“It’s true that some people have a general idea of a big band sound,” says Elling. “Sometimes, it can’t seem to make it out of the box. That is true, in spite of the fact that the players making that music haven’t thought about the box very much at all for decades now. That’s part of the pleasure at this point — and it’s also part of the challenge for me as a singer.
“It’s a challenge to try and please people with the kind of music that they think they want to hear — and actually do want to hear — while trying to shift their expectations a little bit into the future,” he adds. “I want people to consider what big bands could sound like, rather than a kitschy throwback kind of thing, or exclusively your parents’ sound. I want it to pay homage to the creativity and ingenuity of the arrangers who are making it happen now.”
KURT ELLING • Spoleto Festival USA’s Wachovia Jazz Series • $75 (concert and Soirée), $15-$75 (concert only) • June 2 at 8 p.m. (Soirée starts at 10 p.m.) • Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, 77 Calhoun St.• 579-3100
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