BY BENSON IDONIJE
OF the over fifteen CDs that Dorset – based percussionist, Lekan Babalola laid on me recently, I find the one featuring the great singer, Kurt Elling most fascinating and intriguing – for its extraordinariness.
Jazz percussionist Babalola has been coming in and out of Lagos lately to produce some Nigerian artistes for Jazzhole Records. He has taken this assignment rather passionately because he believes that home is where the music is. Among the many CDs he gave to me are One step beyond by alto saxophonist Jackie McLean, and Cassandra Wilson’s Loverly, a recent Grammy Award winning release which will form the subject of a later discussion. Babalola is heard on percussion in Loverly, but for the moment, the focus is the intriguing voice of Kurt Elling who combines Vocalese, Scat singing and the Conventional approach to forge a unique direction in jazz singing.
Since the late King Pleasure who pioneered Vocalese, a trend in which lyrics are set to solos and song by musicians; and John Hendricks, the trend has not surfaced in any new way through any musician. As a matter of fact, many had forgotten all about Vocalese, consigning it to history. But Elling has not only brought it back to the fore, he has also reinvigorated it in a spectacular style, combining it in an amazing way with other vocal elements.
In an era when the number of significant male jazz singers can be counted on one hand, Elling’s arrival is very welcome. Influenced by Mark Murphy, Elling combines poetry with jazz and he is a chance-taking improviser who makes up lyrics as he goes along.
Elling’s status as a jazz singer of today can be fully put in its real perspective when you realise that he is dominating a male turf, which has been long abandoned for reasons that cannot be explained- in favour of the womenfolk.
Popular music singer Frank Sinatra who made occasional forays into jazz can be referred to as one of the early male singers. But the first real jazz singer was Loius Armstrong who combined singing with trumpeting. Then came Jimmy Rushing and Joe Williams both of the Count Basie Orchestra to lift jazz singing from its New Orleans level to the mainstream jazz status. But it was Lou Rawls who took it to the modern jazz level in the ’60s with production by H.B. Barnum. Since then, no singer of note has emerged – from the male jazz category.
And yet, the women have continued to excel because of their commitment and involvement. In consequence, you discover that there are better female singers today even in pop and music forms outside of jazz than the men. This is because, as singers, they focus on influences that are traceable to the female jazz greats.
And this is why I have come to endorse female singer, Dee Dee Bridgewater’s view on today’s singing, which must be instructed by jazz. It is absolutely true that most people that we call singers today are not singers. And even musicians today cannot stand up to the mettle of the basic, well trained, young jazz musicians who can play everything. The truth is that young kids today are not getting a real idea of what real music is and what real musicians and real singers are because most of these kids can’t sing. They are fabrication. They go in the studio, if it is not right, if a note is not right, they just push a lever, push a dial, and drown out the note. And its not until you hear them in live performance that you go, oh, my God, they can’t sing. The hiphop groups and all that we hear today cannot sing. The groups can’t harmonise. Most of the stuff today is computer – derived. It’s all hype with marketing as its bottom line. But Kurt Elling can sing as evidenced by his Live in Chicago performance, featuring Lawrence Hobgood on piano; Bob Amster, acoustic bass; Michael Raynor, drums and percussion – with Jon Henaricks, voice, Von Freeman tenor saxophone; Kahil El ’ Zabar, hand drums; Ed Peterson, tenor saxophone as featured guest artists.
Some of the fourteen tracks include such standards as Smoke gets in your eyes, My foolish heart, I love you for sentimental reasons and Going to Chicago where Elling has profusely demonstrated his ability to sing. His singing is co-ordinated, articulate and unimpaired even on the Solo lines to which he has set poetic lyrics. And from the reaction of the highly appreciative audience, his music has gone down very well and he can walk tall as a singer of immense possibilities, a jazz vocalist of note.
The son of a music minister, Kurt Elling began his career by playing the violin and French horn, discovering jazz while in college. He entered graduate school at the university of Chicagos’ Divinity School. Taken with Jazz at this time, he began jigging regularly at the Green Mill, a local Jazz club. Feeling Jazz vocals as a calling, he left his graduate studies just short of graduation in January 1992.
His father was a church musician and choir director and so his earliest musicial experiences were those of the father and church. The first thing that he ever heard was Bach at a pipe organ.
How did his style move about?
Its never been that I’ve said I want to be radically different from everybody else. That isn’t really the goal. The goal with me has just been – I mean, you construct or create in reaction to everything that you’ve seen in your life.
And when I would go to hear local jazz singers and even some of the ones who were on the national scene when I was coming up, I would want to be knocked out, and I wasn’t getting knocked out. And they were doing things that I already knew from Ella Fitzgenald records, and I already knew from such- and-such records. And they were just copying this lyric, or using that arrangement, or just not really saying very much. And that kind of poised me off be cause the people whose music I had fallen in love with were all people who were really exciting and swing really hard.
I have a very strong sense of what I hear based on what I’ve been taught by tradition based on the people whose work I respect and whose opinions I respect. And Betty Carter is one, and Mark Murphy is another, and Jon Hendricks, and Tony Bennett, and Frank Smatra. But each one of those people – those are four or five radically different singers. They each have their own taking. It’s be cause they’ve such strong artists that they couldn’t help themselves. They had to be that which they are.”
Added to the impact these influences had on Elling, he listened to recordings. Over the years, he watched his father conduct different high school choirs and knock people out. He learnt a lot from the showmanship and planning that go into a concert where people are so happy to be there. He learnt a lot of stuff from his father about how to run a show. And the spirit that can take on, the spirit of mobility and the spirit of real connection with people.
Elling also learnt from watching old movies of Frank Smatra doing his thing I just swinging really hard. And Tony Bennett too.
When he was in the sixth grade, hey watched Tony Bennett on Television in a white dinner jacket with the woody Herman Band. He was also influenced by the cats on the Chicago scene who encouraged him and showed him the ropes.
The art of setting lyrics to remarkable solos and improvising vocally is known in jazz as vocalise. It started from King Pleasure while Oscar brown Junior did a bit of it. But perhaps because Elling’s approach is a combination of many other vocal elements, he describes it as ranking.
“Well it’s a little bit of everything” say Elling. “ I certainly ran t at least once a night. There are a couple of tunes in the show where it regularly happens.
It is difficult to come up with new information every night, but the process of ding it has more to do with trying to be open to that experience of what I have in my heard. It isn’t that you step up, and now you start. It’s that you’re acquainted with your interior life. It’s that you understand what you really feel today and what you really are worrying about, or who you love and what that feels like. If you’re not able to articulate it, you don’t feel it. If you can’t articulate it, it doesn’t exist. So, my opinions is if I can be in contact with my feelings about expressing experiences going through a given day, and hat‘s the difficult work of the artist on a spiritual level.”
Elling has participated in numerous recordings, but as a leader, he has This time it‘s love, The messenger close your eyes and Live in Chicago among a few others recorded on Blue Note.