The magic of Kurt Elling comes to Cork Jazz Festival

Ronan Leonard discovers the magic of Kurt Elling, and looks forward to his visit to Cork for the Jazz Weekend
The magic of Kurt Elling comes to Cork Jazz Festival
US singer Kurt Elling will perform at the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival on October 26.

The description by Paste Magazine of Kurt Elling as ‘perennial poll-winner’ gives you some idea of how lauded he is as a jazz artist.

For instance, he was named the DownBeat Critics Poll Male Vocalist of the Year for FOURTÉEN consecutive years, from 2000 through 2013… and he was also awarded their Talent Deserving Wider Recognition award the preceding four years, from 1997 to 2000. The Guardian described him as “one of jazz’s all-time great vocalists” and he was declared “the standout male vocalist of our time” by The New York Times.

To borrow a term from the sporting arena, he is a ‘triple threat’, he excels as vocalist and interpreter of other people’s work; writes his own material and leads his own bands; and he is also considered one of the finest collaborators in the jazz projects of others.

Since 1995, he has released 13 albums on his own and featured on a mammoth 25 other albums. He has been nominated for a Grammy award 12 times in 21 years.

He comes to City Hall on the Saturday night of the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival with his ‘A Century of Heroes’ show.

Kurt Elling will be at the Cork Jazz Fest on October 26.
Kurt Elling will be at the Cork Jazz Fest on October 26.

His concept for the show is to sing songs such as ‘Come Fly With Me’, best known for Frank Sinatra’s version; ‘I Like The Sunrise’, which Ol’ Blue Eyes recorded with Duke Ellington; ‘You Are Too Beautiful’, a track that was done by Al Jolson and also John Coltrane; ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love’, made famous by Billie Holiday; and ‘Nature Boy’, originally released by Nat King Cole. He considers it as a tribute to the people who really set the foundations for jazz singing.

“I’ve pointed out the antecedents (what has existed before or logically precedes another) of jazz such as Louis Armstrong, Nat ‘King’ Cole, Billy Eckstine, Jon Hendricks, Shirley Horn, and Nancy Wilson, people like that. People who are the history of jazz singing, the world has moved on so quickly and so completely, with such a huge influx of new stars. People don’t even really say or know some of the names of the people from ‘A Century of Heroes’. That saddens me, I want to point people’s attention in their direction.”

His projects tend to have a theme or topic: “I try to make records that relate in one way or another, to get the pieces connected to each other in some way. You know, it helps me to organise my thoughts.

“Sometimes I don’t know what the record is about until it’s finished!

“It’s not necessary for everybody to work it out while listening but it’s there.”

For instance, his most recent album The Questions, released last year, was him searching for answers to the culture’s most divisive social, political, and spiritual issues via the songs of Bob Dylan, Carla Bley, and Leonard Bernstein, and the poetry of Rumi and Wallace Stevens.

He doesn’t anticipate songs from that particular album to feature in his Cork performance: “I don’t think I have any of The Questions record in the festival show, this time. I’ve been exploring and trying to react coherently to our current global situation for the past several tours, and I thought it would be good to give myself and certain audiences a little bit of a break from all that tension.”

One of Kurt’s many collaborators is Fred Hersch, another of the headliners in this year’s Guinness Cork Jazz Festival. Kurt sang

Kurt Elling is set for his Cork City Hall gig.
Kurt Elling is set for his Cork City Hall gig.

on Fred’s 2005 album Leaves Of Grass, a collection of Walt Whitman’s poems set to original music. When asked if he could make a nobel call on Fred to play any piece of music Kurt has heard him play, straight away Kurt recalled: “Fred recorded a version of the ‘Star Crossed Lovers’, a beautiful Billy Strayhorn Duke Ellington composition. He did it so profoundly and so wonderfully. I would have to make that the one I’d announce for him to play.”

Kurt’s adaption of poems is a regular element of his songwriting, but he has no regular method for doing it, he continued: “I don’t really have one process, but I tend first to try to find a melody from the poem, then I’ll ask one of my collaborators to put across some kind of a setting for me to sing to.

“If I can’t myself find the melody, I’ll ask other people see if he or she has the ability to start something with it and I’ll react to that. I’ve been very fortunate to have worked with very, very strong composers and musicians. My work really is just as much theirs, I wouldn’t have had anything to say without them.”

For a songwriter who writes projects for other people as well as himself, he still starts off imagining them for solo performance: “Usually, I think of myself first when writing a song, but I also do much larger work such as The Big Blind, which is an old-time radio drama.”

Kurt Elling.
Kurt Elling.

The live musical, featuring a 23-piece orchestra, is presented as live radio drama on stage. Itdrew largely on Kurt’s experiences of performing regularly in The Green Mill, a cocktail lounge in Chicago that had been one of the hangouts of Al Capone and his associates, and the stories he heard of occurrences there during the prohibition years including one very violent incident to prevent one of Capone’s favoured singers moving to another club.

Those antics from the 1920s were a lot different to Kurt’s first trip to Europe in the late 80s, before he had been signed as a solo artist to Blue Notes records.

“My first tour of Europe was with the Gustavus Choir (a 70-strong voice choir based in Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, where he majored in history and minored in religion). Everything was very organised, we had coaches driving us around, so things were extremely safe and timetabled. I don’t know if that would have given me a different first impression of Europe than if I’d been driving around in a van with four or five musicians.

“What I can say it I was thrilled on that first trip and I’m thrilled to come back every time, and I come back every chance I get.”

Kurt Elling plays Cork City Hall on Saturday, October 26, at 8pm.

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