The Evolution Of Kurt Elling

The Evolution Of Kurt Elling

Since 1995 Kurt Elling has been the gold standard in male jazz vocalists, with one Grammy win and 10 nominations (literally every CD he has put out has been nominated for best jazz vocalist), he sets the tone for guys singing jazz.

But he not just another cat singing standards, he’s innovative, takes chances, scats like crazy, adds words to songs that were previously instrumentals (which is called vocalese), and as improvisational as jazz gets.

Best of all he’s a Rockford native (though since 2008 has lived in New York City), and cut his teeth here with the Chicago jazz scene.

Originally a divinity student At The University of Chicago (who admits he was going to write “big thick tomes no one would ever read”), he turned that passion, reverence and skill into jazz lyrics. He often quotes ancient philosophers (such as Rumi), modern poets (Pablo Neruda), and makes others jazz standards into his own.

His first CD released in May of 1995 (“Close Your Eyes”), on Blue Note records was fresh air into the jazz genre and the next fall when his jazz gig opened the new North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, he had arrived.

Kurt Elling has always been a jazz cat to be seen in person to truly digest his words and embrace his style, his CD’s though always clean and well produced, are just an introduction into his work.

During the mid to late 1990’s Kurt held court Wednesday nights at the Green Mill Jazz club on Broadway just north of Lawrence. He refers to it as “The Pearl of Uptown”. And whenever he is back in town (like this coming weekend), he goes back there to do a classic gig and to see Kurt at his best its where to see him.
Now Kurt has run the gamut in the jazz genre, his 1997 release “The Messenger” has some hip hop rhythms and pushed the envelope on spoken word and was as cutting edge as jazz got.

He followed that up with a 1998 release “This Time its Love”,which was a full of beautiful ballads and was soft & lush but still Kurt with innovation and strong musicianship.

He then really branded his own style with the 2000 release “Live At The Green Mill”, it was a night of his favorites from the club with plenty of special guests and you got to hear Kurt’s humor and what a Green Mill show was like. There's even a CD of outtakes and additional songs of the two nights that the recordings took place.

To further his catalog was 2001’s Flirting With Twilight, again innovative takes on jazz standards, his now trademarked wordsmith "vocalese" ways with new vocals on old instrumental favorites.

I must stop here and mention some of the landmark concerts Kurt had, his first appearance at the Chicago Jazz fest was 1998 but it was his 2001 rainy Friday night on the main stage (and broadcast live on public radio WBEZ), that took him to the next level. He did a take of Stephen Sondheim’s “Not While I’m Around” (that introduced us to classical jazz sideman Jim Gailloreto), and it took your breath away. Especially considering that's a Broadway tune from Sweeney Todd.

It was even more apropos as the 9/11 tragedy was a week and half later and Kurt had a scheduled concert that Friday at the Park West in Lincoln Park. Not a dry eye was in the house as that song flew through our hearts and tears to the rafters.

But in 2003 Kurt took an enormous step forward with his last Blue Note Records release “Man in The Air”, it was a spirited, adventurous, sometimes tumultuous jazz ride that had no bounds and made Kurt seem like that title track. He followed it up with a New Years Eve concert (where else but the Green Mill), that was part of NPR’s NYE "Toast Of The Nation" celebration and Kurt and the band did not disappoint. They flew higher, improvised more (including a chant and Latin prayer), and just jazzed that show and ended 2003 on a literal high note.

But without their Blue Note deal going forward it did not stop the band. I remember seeing them at one of the first Harris Theater concerts (I think June of 2004), and then a beautiful Millennium Park gig in the summer of 2005 (part of the jazz summer series there that featured fellow vocalists Mark Murphy & Jon Hendricks), Kurt always brought it for the live shows. Kurt was also a headliner on the 2010 Chicago Jazz fest, closing the fest out on a Sunday night only like he can leaving a crowd in awe but also jazzed and going home happy.

In 2007 a new label (Concord Records), and new CD ("Nightmoves), that was beautiful and adventurous as ever, this was followed by a 2009 release "Dedicated To You", a CD of the lush music of vocalist Johnny Hartman and fantastic saxophone man John Coltrane and this got Kurt his first Grammy win.

He then released "The Gate" in 2011, which featured a killer cover of Joe Johnson's 1982 hit "Steppin Out".

Lastly was 2012's 1619 Broadway album, a CD of standards dedicated to the New York Brill Building where so many hit records were made. His take of "On Broadway" & "A House Is Not a Home", will make you take notice, despite of all Kurt has accomplished in the last 18 years.

Over time the band has changed, it was originally a band called Union fronted by Laurence Hobgood on piano, Rob Amster on bass and Paul Wertico on drums.
Laurence became Kurt’s collaborator, producer and basically musical partner from that first 1995 CD until a few months ago.

Rob Amster unfortunately passed suddenly a few months ago and Paul Wertico had left the group years ago but is still around locally doing all kinds of jazz gigs.
This group though solidified a “Chicago Jazz” sound that defined Kurt in his early years and was his stepping stone as he evolved as an artist.

The band also had many people who sat with and or made an impression on Kurt such as legends like saxophonist Ed Petersen, the originator or vocalese Jon Hendricks and the late great local sax man Von "Vonski" Freeman.

In 2008 Kurt moved to New York City to really step up his game and evolve and that is something to expect from Kurt, he does not stand still and sing the same songs, he’s a student of jazz, religions and life. His music reflects all of that and will inspire you all the while his talent will amaze you as he prepares for his next evolution.

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    Charles W. Johnson

    I'm a lifelong writer (since I was 8 years old), and have been doing this blog in some form or fashion since 2004. I'm a DePaul grad (LA&S '99), and know and love Chicago. Writing is my passion, what I write is what I feel and there is no half steppin' with my work. I simply want to share my thoughts, experiences and opinions. And I appreciate you taking to the time to read what I have to say.

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