Saturday, May 06, 2006
Chicago-based singer Kurt Elling will be in St. Louis next week to headline a four-night run at Jazz at the Bistro, and our pal Terry Perkins, spot on the job as usual, has a feature story/interview with Elling for STLtoday right here.
The piece got me thinking about a couple of things related to Elling and the current state of jazz singing. In his intro to the piece, Terry notes the recent commercial successes of male singers like Jamie Cullum, Peter Cincotti and Michael Buble, and suggests that it is in some ways the equivalent of the renewed interest in female jazz singers sparked a few years ago by Diana Krall, Norah Jones and others. True enough, but I don't think Elling really belongs in the same category as Cullum, Cincotti and Buble. Maybe it's a generational thing, as Elling is a bit older than the other three. And certainly it's a commercial thing - while Elling has presumably had reasonably steady sales during his tenure as a Blue Note artist, there's no way he's moved as many units as any of the others.
But mostly, I think it has to do with the singers that each man used as a template to begin building his own musical personality. All three of the younger fellas are influenced to one degree or another by the "saloon singing" tradition, rooted in pre-WWII swing, drawing heavily on the "Great American Songbook," and most often associated with Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. It's an approach heavily informed by pop music, though the particular style of pop may be decades old.
Elling is much more of a bebop/post-bop kind of vocalist who, as noted in the story, reveres the work of Jon Hendricks and the late Eddie Jefferson, with both of whom he shares a penchant for vocalese (the practice of writing lyrics for previously recorded instrumental melodies or improvised solos). In some ways, he has a technically "better" voice that either Hendricks or Jefferson did in their prime, with more timbral flexibility and better control of fine gradations of pitch and projection across his entire range
A former divinity student, Elling also projects a certain seriousness of purpose and a poetic sensibility that would seem to be diametrically opposed to the ring-ding-a-ding, bada-boom swing of the Rat Pack. Not that Sinatra and Bennett are/were incapable of tender moments; indeed, both men proved their mettle with ballad material time and time again. Whether their younger emulators are too callow to achieve the same depths of feeling is a question with an answer that's still being written.
There's much to admire about Elling, and I share his appreciation of and affection for the musical contributions of Hendricks and Jefferson. But, despite owning a couple of his CDs and giving them repeated plays in an attempt to grok them fully, I can't say that I've ever really enjoyed Elling's work all that much - until recently, when I happened to catch him on an episode of Legends of Jazz.
Elling shared the program with Al Jarreau, who I'm glad always to see despite his many years of burying his true talents beneath overproduced, listless attempts to grab an R&B or pop hit. Perhaps it was the chance to be on national TV, or the combination of competition and camaraderie, that proved inspirational, or maybe Elling is just that much better as a live performer than as a recording artists in the studio. Maybe it was simply that I was able to see as well as hear him. Whatever the reason, his version of "She's Funny That Way," with original lyrics set to what was originally a Lester Young solo, was, in a word, stunning. It was everything one hopes for from a great jazz performance: musically sophisticated, yet immediately accessible; emotionally deep; and executed with consummate skill.
Of course, maybe the problem hasn't been Elling; maybe I just haven't been hearing him until now. As a result, I've gone back to the CDs, and plan to pick up a couple more soon, to try to see what I've missed. I'm also making plans to get down to the Bistro next week to see him live. I'm not sure why it took me this long to go from just respecting Elling to actually enjoying him, but in some ways, I'm actually glad to know that I'm not so damn jaded as to be unable to revisit previously held opinions when presented with new evidence.
(Edited right after posting to correct a couple of typos.)
Posted by Dean Minderman at 4:36 AM