Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine


May/June 2009: Jimmy Cobb

Kurt Elling:
The Sky’s the Limit

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Kurt Elling is a singer who commands your attention from the first note to the last. As well as fresh and compelling performances of the standard vocal repertoire, Elling is known for his imaginative reworking of instrumental standards. His original lyrics and virtuosic vocalizing have brought a whole new life to music that has never been considered part of the vocalist’s repertoire. Like Mark Murphy and Jon Hendricks before him, he has shown that the sky is the limit when a singer’s voice becomes both a channel of expression and an instrument to explore.

Elling has won the Downbeat Critics Poll for Best Male Vocalist every year for the past eight years, and has been nominated for eight Grammy Awards. When he takes the mic at the Burton Cummings Theatre this May, audiences in Winnipeg will have a chance to hear for themselves why the Jazz Review said that “Elling may be the greatest male Jazz singer of all time.”

I talked recently with Kurt. Here’s part of our conversation:

How did you get started with music?

I grew up singing in church, beginning when I was very young, so I never knew there was an option not to sing. I was in environment that was joyful and not pressured in any way so I saw singing and music in general as a natural part of life.

How do you go about writing lyrics?

You start by choosing something you like. Then you have to have a story to tell or an emotion to describe that justifies the process. Finally, you have to be dedicated enough to follow the idea through and make it a worthwhile experience.

Your 2008 recording, Nightmoves, was a great success. What is next?

I am currently finishing a project with saxophonist Ernie Watts. We’re calling it Dedicated to You, which is a direct reference to the famous 1963 recording by John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. We’ve been playing the material live for a while and finally had a chance to record it.

Do you have any advice for young musicians hoping to make a career of music?

I didn’t go to music school, I didn’t make it going up through the New York scene, and I wasn’t tapped on the shoulder by Ray Brown. All I can say is that you must fall in love with the music hard enough that you practice more, work harder, be smarter, and have more faith than anyone else…

Shannon Kristjanson is a vocalist and reed player in the U of M’s Jazz Studies program.

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