Singer and songwriter Kurt Elling has become a cultural icon
in the U.S.A. The release of his latest record Nightmoves
has taken him on a world tour which included a date in Madrid
(July 13th 2007). Just a few hours before the concert Arturo
Mora and Pablo Sanz had the chance to interview him in a relaxed
environment. His album, jazz, artistry and other topics are presented here as discussed by Elling.
PABLO SANZ: After a successful career in Blue
Note, why did you switch to the Concord label?
KURT ELLING: Well, I hope it will continue to
be successful. They signed me for six records at Blue Note,
and I made six, and at the same time I’m turning 40
this year, my wife and I had our first child, we changed apartments,
so... many changes. And I wanted to see who else was interested
and what other partnerships I could make. I felt that I could
do more, and also just ‘cause I’m curious about
life. And so far, so good [laughs]. Everything’s gonna
be OK, galactic! [laughs].
ARTURO MORA: Is it because of all that that
you called your new CD Nightmoves, because all of
this change happening?
KURT ELLING: Yeah, it does fit into that. I
called the record Nightmoves because in my mind the
record tells us a sort of cinema of the mind. You can put
it on if you want to and follow the character through overnight.
When the night comes it’s a very special feeling, the
sun is horizontal and it’s that beautiful magic hour
and it always feels to me that anything is possible. In the
daytime is like: “I gotta do these things”, responsibilities,
phone calls, whatever, but when the sun starts to go down,
now life can happen. Many moves, many possibilities, love
and betrayal and adventure and maybe the truth comes out.
ARTURO MORA: ...and jazz.
KURT ELLING: And, of course, jazz. Jazz is tough
in the daytime [laughs].
PABLO SANZ: Cassandra Wilson told me once that
instead of choosing songs, songs chose her. Which is your
working method, how and why do you choose the songs?
KURT ELLING: Every record comes after another
period of time, of touring with the band, so let’s say
that there’s two years between a record. Over two years
you’re playing the record you’ve just put out
and you say: “hey, I’ve got these three other
ideas for a record”. Or you sit down and you have an
idea for a song. So over two years there are too small intuitive
decisions. You follow your ideas, you follow what’s
pressing you here, and over one year or two years you’ve
made many decisions: this doesn’t work, or you need
to change this, or this makes the audience really happy in
this way. So any idea that I have, and as much as I can put
it down on paper we can start to play it right away and find
out if it fits or not. So a record, in its best way, is the
culmination of many small decisions. It’s one big decision
that comes of many small, small decisions.
ARTURO MORA: What do you look for in a solo
to work on it in vocalese?
KURT ELLING: First I just have to like it, fall
in love with the piece of music, and sometimes I love a piece
of music for many years before I even think of it to write
a lyric, because I don’t wanna only listen to music
with more work in mind. I want to just be a fan too. But every
once in a while I go: “I like this, I wonder if it could
work”, and then I have to listen to see if it is possible,
because, let’s say, maybe the musician plays something
that’s very, very fast, or that isn’t notes, that’s
just sound. Then I have to say: “well, can I sing this?
If I sing it, will it just sound ridiculous? Is it impossible?
Is the range too broad?”, there are some technical decisions
to figure out. If it works I sit down and try to learn the
solo, and while I’m learning it I try to make a scratch
lyric, just to get ideas going. Or, sometimes, I’ll
be listening to a solo and there will just be a lyric. Sometimes
the way the musician plays will be so lyrical, as if he were
singing, not playing the trumpet or the saxophone. That’s
the best way, because then I feel that I’m just translating
from another language. I pretend it. And then it’s very
hard work, like any other writing.
PABLO SANZ: Your jazz audiences notice the differences
between younger singers like Jamie Cullum or Michael Bublé
and you. Do you feel you’re more a jazz singer than
KURT ELLING: Well, I am different. I think Jamie’s
great, I think he’s a lot of fun, and I think he’s
really hip and new. I don’t know Michael Bublé
as well, I only know some big band stuff, but I get the feeling
that Michael Bublé doesn’t really care as much
about being a jazz person. No judgement but, I mean, I’m
an artist, I’m a jazz artist, and in many ways it makes
my relationship with a new audience much more difficult in
any country, because what I do is not as straightforward,
is not as clear the very first time, and the references I
make sometimes are a little obscure, and the music that we
make is more complicated. That means I have to be very conscious
to try to make an audience happy early. Make them happy right
away, and give them something that they will say: “oh,
I’m so glad we came”, and then when I make the
difficult thing they say: “he’s heavy, what do
you think about this?” [laughs]. In may ways I wish
I could be breezy: no cares, you’re eighteen, ... but
I’ve never really been eighteen [laughs], I’ve
always been an old man.
So do I feel different? Yes, but I believe
in what I do and I believe that enough of the people in the
world want to have some challenge, and want to have good conversation
after a concert, and then they have some creation as well.
ARTURO MORA: You sing, you write, you’ve
worked for the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago, you’ve
also worked with your wife Jennifer, who’s a dancer.
Do you think all art forms are, in some way, related?
KURT ELLING: Oh yeah, sure. I don’t know
all the ways, but my intuition tells me they come from the
same kind of feelings among the people who end up really becoming
artists. There’s a incomplete feeling that you have
when you can’t do your work, and I know that there’s
a lot of awkward struggle and pain that is common to all people,
but has a unique challenge to people who are artists. Yeah,
I believe that what artists are really doing, they are reaching
out for the future, they are holding up an example of something
that’s nouveau, something that’s important to
society. And I’ll tell you why: because when I go to
hear Keith Jarrett or Wayne Shorter, or when I go to the ballet
– the ballet is so beautiful – it reminds you
what’s possible for human beings, and it’s very
moving, and it lets you forget terror and disappointment and
pain, and it lets you focus only on something that is pure
in intention and beautiful in execution, and in that way makes
everyone who’s in the audience paying attention more
noble. It’s the evolution of the species, it’s
the maintenance of humanity in many ways.
And don’t forget to put that I’ve
worked very hard against George Bush, even before he was elected
the first time, which he wasn’t. [laughs]
PABLO SANZ: Talking about George Bush, do you
know our former president Aznar, who appeared in the trio
photo with Bush and Blair? [laughs]
KURT ELLING: The one who went away because of
that? I was very proud of you when this happened. That’s
There’s something in human beings that
tries to destroy everything. Original Sin is a legitimate
category of our experience, and it describes something real,
it describes a will that we have to hurt each other, and to
leave myself up by pushing you down. This gets back to your
question: this is why art is important. That’s why your
intention’s got to be so powerful every time you perform.
I heard the story about Wayne [Shorter] in the back seat of
a car going for a soundcheck or something and he says to his
road manager: “how’s it going?” and he goes:
“it’s terrible, this thing didn’t work out,
luggage got lost, there’s a long, long list of things”,
and Wayne says: “what are you gonna do tonight?”,
and the manager says: “I don’t know, I don’t
know, I just feel so bad. What are you gonna do tonight?”,
and Wayne says: “I’m going to manifest my enlightenment
through music”. See? That’s what I mean. Long
day, airport, my wife and my little baby are thousands of
miles away, but here are people and I have my work, and I’m
here to aspire to this experience that I have with other artists,
that’s what I’m here to do. That’s what
makes me feel different from someone who’s eighteen.
PABLO SANZ: You’ve kept your collaborators
for a long time (Laurence Hobgood, Rob Amster, Willie Jones
III). What can you tell us about them?
KURT ELLING: First of all I realize how fortunate
I’ve been, because of the level of musicians that I
have in my band. They’re excellent and superior. They
could have played with anybody, even from the time when I
only paid them forty dollars on a gig and I had no Blue Note
contract. This is part of the gift that the city of Chicago
gave to me, that there’s a scene with those top calliber
musicians who were accessible to me and who helped me begin,
and we’ve developed after the years tight working relationships,
and I value it and I understand how much a gift it is, because
we have a sound that belongs to us, and it’s very rare
these days in jazz to have something that holds on to itself,
even when there’s a lot of money involved the groups
tend to be together for two or three years. For example Josh[ua]
Redman and the San Francisco Jazz Collective, great incredible
bunch of musicians, and already after a couple or three years:
“I’m ready to move on” and one guy goes
like this, and then the other guy goes like this... Brad Mehldau
Trio, those guys have the sound, there’s a reason: Brad
knows what he’s going for and this makes sense. So to
me it makes sense too, there’s other people I’d
like to work with and have fun with and experiment with, but
it’s more important for me to be able to work with my
musicians. And if I start to move musicians around I know
it’s ... so much effort. [laughs]
ARTURO MORA: In your new record there’s
a song called “The Waking”, a duo between you
and bassist Robert Amster. The lyrics are a poem by Theodore
Ruthke. How did the music come out?
KURT ELLING: I’ve done this many times,
to take a piece of poetry and make it work with a piece of
music. Over the chord changes I will freely make a new melody
with this piece of poetry, and in some cases this is developed
into kind of set pieces, because they work so well and it
gives the audience something that’s new from me, even
on a piece of music of mine that they know very well. In the
case of “The Waking” that you’re referring
to I just asked Rob to make a motif and we just started the
same way without any idea of how it would work out and we
played it in many gigs. Then when we went into the studio,
it was not in the list for the record, but in the very first
day, when we were going to do the first cut, there was something
so wrong with the piano that we couldn’t make the record
with that piano, so the five people got on the phones and
while they’re doing this, as I don’t like to waste
any time, I said Rob: “Let’s do this, and maybe
something will come out of it, and at least we’ll be
ARTURO MORA: The content of the lyrics in your
music is very important. May this be a problem with non-English
speaking audiences? Have you found foreign audiences less
receptive because they didn’t know the lyrics?
KURT ELLING: Well, I’m very conscious
of this, as I said I need to make people happy, and I know
that what I do is difficult even for people who speak English,
and I don’t have a better answer other than: I guess
people just listen to it as just music. You know, when I listen
to a beautiful fado singer I don’t know what she’s
singing about, I just feel like: “listen to that, that’s
incredible”, and I feel the passion, I feel the music.
You don’t always have to know everything that’s
happening, you don’t have to know all the layers because
maybe what she’s singing has all that history, and she’s
referring to other singers and... But I don’t know any
of that. So the lyric is not necessary for every single audience.
It’s necessary for me, because I’m the writer.
But, well, it’s an imperfect world. [laughs] Or maybe
it’s better they don’t know what I’m singing
about specifically, maybe I’m not a good enough writer
ARTURO MORA: In your project Spirituality,
Poetry & Jazz you said: “Lyric writing is a
form of poetry. It must rhyme and follow a coherent form.
In the sub-category of Jazz and vocalese writing, that means
the composition of words to fit the melodic contours and rhythms
of a modern musical art form that is exhaustingly challenging.”
Do you think in some way lyric writing is underrated?
KURT ELLING: I don’t know, I mean: does
anybody even care? Does anybody even care enough about poetry?
You care, obviously, but I mean people. Do people even pay
attention to poetry enough to say: “this is more important
than the other”? I don’t know.
ARTURO MORA: But for you...
KURT ELLING: For me, I don’t have the
training and the understanding enough for poetry as it stands
alone to take part in that art form in a deep way. But over
here I understand music, and I know what sounds right for
a language most of the time, and I like it and it feels like
it’s something I should do, because there’s almost
nobody else interested, and the people who came before me
made an important thing happen, they made a new form of art,
and they didn’t go to art school, Eddie Jefferson didn’t
go to poetry school, and Jon Hendricks didn’t go to
poetry school, and Annie Ross, and their stuff sounds killing.
I’m very critical of my work and I try
to improve all the time and when I look back at some pieces
that I’ve written sometimes I say: “man, I wish
I had written that section better”. Like you do when
you try to get better. But at the same time here I am, and
some of the times it’s pretty good, so I just keep trying.
ARTURO MORA: Three years ago you performed live
in Madrid the song “The Sleepers”. In Nightmoves
you’ve recorded that song with a string quartet. How
has the piece evolved through the years?
KURT ELLING: We don’t perform it every
night. I get bored easily, so the set changes a lot over time,
and there are certain specific things that have lasted much
longer than others. “The Sleepers” started from
a Fred Hersch work, and then it became something we did in
another key with strings. But I don’t know, I don’t
listen to the record very much, I don’t like to go:
“Yeah, I sound great!” [laughs]. After we make
the record, and I do my best to make sure it sounds as good
as I can make it, I tend not to listen to it very much, so
I’ll have to play it for you tonight and you’ll
tell what does change.
ARTURO MORA: I’ll tell you [laughs]. How
did the collaboration with Christian McBride happen?
KURT ELLING: Christian and I had met a bunch
of times, but we’d only got to play together twice or
three times. We just called him to find that he was gonna
be in town, and then we invited him to make an arrangement,
and he’s super beautiful, a really loving guy who’s
a complete top master of music. He was beautiful enough to
bring his thing into our world. It was very easy, I just called
him up, played a little bit and everything came together.
With most jazz people it’s not that big
of a deal, if you meet them a couple of times and you respect
each other’s work and ... The jazz world is not so big,
it’s not like calling a David Bowie or something. There’s
a couple of guys I couldn’t call up: Wayne [Shorter],
Keith [Jarrett]. I could sort of call Herbie [Hancock], but
I’d really had to have something to invite him on. There’s
sort of like ten guys, but everybody else is like you can
just call them up and say: “Hi, it’s Kurt”.
ARTURO MORA: How do you work with Laurence Hobgood?
When you’re writing a song or an arrangement, who does
KURT ELLING: All the time it’s different.
He’ll bring to me something that’s a big sketch,
and I’ll come to his house, and we’ll play and
he’ll say: “what do you think?”, and I’ll
say: “well, I don’t understand that section”
or “this is really cool” or “I would like
to hear this section like this”, and we’ll work
on it together until we find something out, and we’ll
probably do one session, and then after we have it all up
he’ll go to work and I’ll go to work on my thing
and sometimes I’ll bring to him something that’s
for me almost ready to go, but I’ll know his, you know,
brain, so: “how can we fix this up?” And he’ll
go: “wow, that is good, what about if we did this?”.
So it’s like a conversation that either one of us can
start. We can go from many places.
ARTURO MORA: Upcoming projects, musical or whatever?
KURT ELLING: The biggest thing I have is that
I have a lot of touring, and I’m kind of in the middle
of what’s happening, I’ve got a lot of business
to take care of. The touring, I’ve got a lot of special
projects, I’ve got a Nancy Wilson special concert to
make, we’re doing big orchestra things in Australia
in 2008 and I need to commission big charge for it and figure
out which tunes, ... I’m always writing, so that’s
always happening. Overtime I’m working on a screenplay,
but it’s taking a long time, ‘cause I don’t
know what I’m doing, so I’m learning while I go.
The baby’s a big deal, I really wanna make sure I do
that right. I used to have like ten things, but now I want
to be a good father, and it’s very, very difficult to
be on the road this much and to do that at the same time.
So when I’m home I’m not going to be kicking around
and say: “I’m going to work on my screenplay today”,
I’m definitely going to be in with my baby and make
sure that she’s cool and give my wife a break and try
to be a man. It’s a big deal. It’s the number
one project right now.
Text © 2007
and Pablo Sanz