With a number of Grammys under his belt, and being named "Male Singer of the Year" by the Jazz Journalists Association six times in the last decade, Kurt Elling is one of the world's top jazz vocalists. On his latest effort, The Gate, released in February on Concord, Elling teamed up with legendary producer Don Was, who was floored the first time he heard Elling on the radio while driving in his car. The album includes some inventive reworkings of tunes by King Crimson (Elling has been a fan since college), Joe Jackson, Herbie Hancock, the Beatles, Stevie Wonder and Miles Davis. We caught up with Elling in preview of his show tomorrow night, April 9, at the Soiled Dove, and spoke with him about The Gate and working with Was.
Westword: How did you go about choosing the tunes for The Gate?
Kurt Elling: Several of the pieces for The Gate were pieces I had in mind, not necessarily for my own use, but just rattling around in my head for years. You know, you listen to a lot of music, stuff you remember as a kid, you're walking down the street and you find yourself humming or singing something and say, "Wow, that's a good idea." I sing it with a different groove consciousness so it puts different ideas into my mind, and what usually comes across for me are arrangement ideas at the same time I have a memory of a song. Some of these things have been there for a while, and a couple of these things we came up with at the last minute. A couple of things, you know, sort of fell into place.
Don Was said that this album was like a major artistic leap for you. Would you agree with that?
Well, it's hard for me to say from the inside, because what I have on the inside is an organic progress of ideas, one which leads to another. That's really what it comes down to for me. When I listen to our records back then, I notice things that I learned from one to another. And I notice things that I do better from one record to another, and I'm just trying to grow over time. And to say from the inside, "Now what I'm doing is leaps and leaps better from what I've ever done before," is a little impossible for me to even gauge.
It sounds like it's more of a natural progression.
For me, that's the way it feels.
What did Don Was bring to the table on this album?
He brought a lot of confidence. He brought a lot of experience. He bought a lot of emotional support for what I wanted to do with this particular record.
Did he offer any particular direction to go on in?
It wasn't really like that. It was more that he... We definitely had conversations about things, and he would make some suggestions when we were in pre-production. But all the propositions ended up being things that I approved, or that Laurence [Hobgood] brought to the table. I had to admit that it was a great idea and we just took it from there. And Don was just supportive throughout.
Did you have any other songs that you worked on that didn't make the cut?
We had thought about doing a couple of things that I have done in the past as encore material, some Steve Miller things and whatnot. But they just didn't really gel in the same way.
Were you aiming for a particular vibe with the record, kind of a cohesive sort of feel to it?
What I try to do is just be transparent and let the music lead me. In this case, since we had a guitar player on, it made sense that John McLean would play so masterfully, not only has a soloist but as a parts player. It all makes sense to me that it would go the direction that it went in.
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From what I understand, you went down the path of an academic career before you started singing professionally, right?
Yes, I was in graduate school for a significant amount of time, and I was reading philosophy, and I was, I guess, trying to get an intellectual map of the history of thought in my head so that I could, as you say, try to be an academic. But I'm happy that did not work out.
You also take references and images from poets. It almost seems like a way of combining the two, like having the intellectual element in the music.
I think jazz is... and being a jazz singer, being somebody who can write new lyrics and tell stories, it's a fairly perfect crossroad of a number of different possibilities for somebody in my position, somebody with my background.