Kurt Elling: “Jazz sustains me”

kurtKurt Elling has a two or three reasons to be excited – not least among them his return to Australia “with a hot band” – his words. He talks like that, spicing up his phrases with words like “cat”, “hot”, “magic”; he talks like the jazzman that he is. “I’m always happy to play in Australia,” he says of the performances he’s planned for Melbourne (at Bird’s Basement) and Sydney (at the City Recital Hall). “I’m adopted by Australians, they’re a brilliant audience; we’ll be playing a few favourites and some things I haven’t even thought of yet,” he says.

On the same day of his Sydney performance, his new album will be out – his collaboration with Branford Marsalis, ‘Upward Spiral’. The two modern masters will be touring from July to October, playing at some of the more important jazz festivals in Europe and the U.S. “It’s going to be a lot of fun,” he promises.

This is not the only album that Kurt Elling has planned to release this year. Prior to his visit to Australia, he was busy in Chicago, recording his first holiday record, “trying out some different arrangements.”

And he’s still “riding high” from playing with “all the cats” at the White House, at the International Jazz Day Global Concert, on the 30th of April. Does he think that these kind of events offer jazz some much needed space in the spotlight that might draw some new audience? “Every little bit helps,” he muses, quick to add: “I don’t think jazz is endangered. I think it’s in beautiful shape. A lot of things are happening naturally. There are more incredible musicians around, some of them completely unknown, in different parts of the world: in the States, in Europe, in Australia, in New Zealand, it’s profound. They are the lifeblood of jazz, the people who understand the power of the idea and want to be jazz musicians. Jazz is a tree growing many limbs, which are siblings, and they have siblings in other cultures. This kind of input gives substance to jazz. It’s an inclusive music, which is all about compassion and being human.”

When he talks, Kurt Elling may sound like a preacher, spreading the jazz word. But when he’s onstage and sings, it is something different. He has a way of taking the audience by the hand, very casually, as if in a conversation. By the time the song has ended, he has managed to show his amazing vocal talent, taking the listener along for a ride to the skies. “I’m trying to connect to people, to tell a story and invite them to join me in ideas – musical and otherwise – that I believe in,” he explains. “I’m so grateful to be able to sing, to make jazz my vocation: I dedicated my life to this; It helps me, it sustains me, it supports me, it has allowed me to travel more and make friends. Besides, singing itself is its own reward.”

What was the biggest challenge he has had to face, throughout this journey?”When I first started, I was alone. I didn’t know how to do it. I knew I could bring something valuable to jazz singing, from a man’s perspective, but I had to learn how to make people believe in me; how to get talented people to work with me; how to put a band together; how to not get too drunk,” he adds, laughing.

What song would he choose to describe his current state of mind? “That song has not been written yet,” he says. “If I were a poet or a better musician, I’d write it. I am not. But I know it’s out there.”

*Kurt Elling will be playing at Bird’s Basement in Melbourne on Wednesday 1st and Thursday 2 June and at the City Recital Hall in Sydney, on Friday 3 June.