Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine


Kurt Elling: Getting the Cheese

Written by:

He sang, he talked, he coached—and he inspired. On a Sunday morning at the end of May, musicians and music-lovers had a chance to watch Kurt Elling at work. We got a glimpse of the musical philosophy underpinning his phenomenally successful career, and we all took home lessons from his astute and supportive instruction of the singers who got up to sing for him. A lot happened in those short two hours, but here are a few highlights…

As a person who didn’t come up through a conservatory or “get discovered” by somebody in the business, he has a practical appreciation for persistence—he got his start by taking his package from restaurants to clubs, bugging owners for little gigs. At the same time, he also places a high value on taking music seriously. Once you’ve reached a certain level of proficiency, the real distinguishing feature amongst successful musicians is their determination to put in actual hours of practice. “It’s not what you’ve been given,” he said, “but what you are making with what you’ve been given.”

Singers have an advantage, he says, because they can skip a few steps that instrumentalists can’t—you can start early and develop your talent more naturally. Unfortunately, that can produce singers who don’t put in the effort when it’s time to get serious. They can fake a lot of stuff, and often don’t really respect the talent in their bands. His advice? Know something about all the instruments on the bandstand, and take the music seriously enough so that you know what your musicians are contributing. “Definitely always hire people smarter than you, that can play better than you. I do not wanna be the best player on the bandstand.”

Elling talked about the singer’s position in two interconnected circles: the singer is the connection point for the audience, and at the same time the singer is part of the band. A lot of his coaching focused on the very practical considerations of each of those circles. The audience wants eye contact, a relaxed body, and a feeling of connection—how you position the microphone, how you move on the stage, how you think about the flow of the lyrics all help achieve that goal. The band wants to support the singer’s ideas and contribute to the audience’s experience—how you cue them for tempo, intensity, and shifts in emotion, and how you respond to their ideas are part of that dynamic.

It’s a lot to master—and a master makes it look easy. As each singer worked to refine their communication in both those circles, all of us gained a fuller appreciation for the subtleties that make a strong ensemble click.

Elling’s offerings weren’t only technical, though. His observations about music as a gestural art form opened some new ways of thinking about phrasing and expression. When a song is understood less as a series of notes and more as a movement through time and space, the lyrics are suddenly supported by a fuller realization of the information in the music itself, and the singer’s body can take a more natural and vital role in making a song musical.

There’s a deep passion in Elling—he loves to sing, and he’s determined to share that love. For him, the path is clear: “Start wherever you are, hook up with the best people you can, and desire music enough to work harder and be more disciplined than anybody you know. When you fall in love with it, you want to give your life to it.”

Even in the current economic crisis? “I don’t worry so much about jazz people in this climate,” he says, “because we’re the innovators. We figure things out all the time, it’s what we do. We look at a puzzle and figure out the most interesting way to get through the maze—and get the cheese!”

Charlene Diehl is a self-confessed masterclass addict.

Copyright! © 2023 dig! magazine.