Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Kurt Elling speaks about his latest album, upcoming shows at the Triple Door in Seattle

Courtesy of the artist
Vocalist Kurt Elling

KNKX's Robin Lloyd sat down with Grammy-winning vocalist Kurt Elling to chat about a singer's life in the COVID-19 era.

Robin Lloyd: Tell me about your latest recording.

Kurt Elling: The new album is “SuperBlue.” It's a very different project in many ways from projects I've done in the past. It's not an acoustic project.

It came about because Charlie Hunter and I have known each other for a hundred years. We were both signed to Blue Note at the same time, and we got to be friends back then. We've talked for years about doing a larger project, and it hasn't come around. The first COVID lockdown hit just when I was going to go out [on tour] with Danilo Perez.

[Pianist Danilo Perez and Kurt Elling won a 2021 Grammy for their album “Secrets Are the Best Stories.”]

I was very much looking forward to working in that atmosphere and learning from Danilo and having that adventure. And when the whole year's worth of dates fell out, I had to figure out a way to maintain sanity, and so did Charlie.

He and I were kind of flirting with a project like this by doing things in 30 seconds, you know, spots on Instagram or wherever it was. And that thankfully started to develop into a little bit more elaborate set of possibilities. He was already friends with Corey [Fonville] and Devonne [Harrison], the cats from Butcher Brown that helped us make this record and that co-produced the record he was already doing at the time with those with those cats up in Richmond.

So he suggested that they go in, lay some grooves down, get some likely chord changes happening. They sent those to me. And then, as you know, Charlie and I finally recorded with each other in Urbana, Illinois, for a couple of weeks in the dead of winter. And in two weeks, we laid in the vocal tracks and did some saucy things, and he put in some guitar overdubs, and then we sent it to mastering.

It's a strange thing because I hadn't met Corey or Devonne until after the whole project was mixed and mastered and delivered, so that's an unusual thing. And then, of course, the focus on a very different sonic atmosphere than I'm used to working in habitually. You know, usually I go out with my acoustic group and we're doing my version of straight ahead, progressive jazz music, and in this case, there's just a lot more backbeat involved. It's a “jazz adjacent,” I would call it, kind of atmosphere, a lot more backbeat, a lot more groove, a lot more focus on the stuff that Corey and Devonne and Charlie are experts at.

I've had aspects of this kind of music on my past records. I've covered Stevie Wonder on occasion and Earth, Wind and Fire and various rock 'n' roll things, but never to this full-on degree. Charlie and the cats in the band, they placed a lot of trust in me. As always, I want to show respect to the history of the music that I'm singing, and I'm certainly more conversant and more comfortable in an acoustic environment. And I have in that environment, you know, the imprimatur of Jon Hendricks and Mark Murphy and the history of the people who have entrusted me, the singers who have come before.

I really don't have that same relationship with Stevie Wonder and any number of the cats from that kind of realm of influence. So for Charlie to trust me and Devonne and Corey to say, “No, dude, you got this” was a big deal.

I always want to pay proper respect to the originators stylistically, and I don't want to make it that I'm just grabbing and stealing, and its ersatz rhythm and blues.

SuperBlue: Lonely Avenue - Live from The Pool

I'm grateful that the album is out. We're working on a second Blue Note recording right now, because we have a second lockdown, and I had another couple of months of dates fall through. So we're getting back to business.

The cats sent over a whole bunch of other sets of chord changes and grooves. So I'm writing again and trying to keep my sanity happening that way, and we're passing files back and forth. Thankfully, it looks like a lot of the tour dates that we have scheduled starting again in March and thereafter are happening; wave number two is dissipating. And God willing, whatever wave number three brings will be even less of an ordeal for people, and we'll be able to be out there doing our jobs again.

RL: This is a different kind of collaboration, that you've been able to put it together "long distance.” These are new skills.

KE: New skills, trying to do it, trying to keep it going and keep the ball in the air.

RL: I'm partial to the title cut “SuperBlue” because it’s Freddie Hubbard.

KE: He was a total master. I'm partial to it as well. I'm glad we could really do some pieces from legit jazz masters — the Freddie lick, the Wayne Shorter thing.

I love having a piece from Wayne on so many of my records. There's just something about the emotional content and the storytelling that Wayne is always creating. I just always hear stories in his music, and I don't know why that's so much more resonant for me in that way than any of the other great storytellers. I mean, with Sonny Rollins, there's always a story there, too. I don't know why those stories haven't, yet at least, played out with the same kind of lyrical, in the "writing words" sense of lyrical. But for some reason, Wayne's thing just resonates with me like a tuning fork, and I'm so humbled that he's allowed me to do so many of his pieces and to recast them with words. And I hope that what I'm doing doesn't pin any of his magnificent melodies down. I hope I don't make things concrete with a lyric in a way that does a disservice to his super-abundant gestures.

I'm in this business of writing these lyrics. Wayne Shorter plays to 3,000 people in a space, 3,000 people have their own imaginations and their own ways of interpreting what it is, and if they choose to follow images or stories in their mind's eye, then there's 3,000 ways that that can happen. As soon as the singer comes on and puts a lyric to it, then everybody in the room, now, at some level, is asking, "What's the story about? What was that word?" And even if they know what it is or can immediately apprehend that information, it's a different story, a specific story being told now. So I'm always mindful of that. And I, as I say, I hope that the work I'm doing honors any of the writers and instrumentalists who have come before.

If Jon [Hendricks] hadn't led the way with such abandon and such confidence and the obvious mastery, and shown so much joy and provided so much unique, profound, extraordinary storytelling abilities and opened the door for people, I think, to hear bebop melodies in ways that they might not have been able to hear without a singer doing that work, then I wouldn't have had the confidence myself to have to have followed up on his work and the work of Eddie Jefferson and Gil Scott-Heron. And, you know, the list goes on. So once again, I'm grateful to those leaders in sound and writing and singing to have opened the door for me and everybody like me to walk through and try our hand.

RL: I saw your radio play, The Big Blind, livestreamed from the Detroit Jazz Festival. That was great fun. Do you have any plans for anything else like that?

KE: We're very hopeful. It's very difficult to get concert venues to want to book such an ambitious program at this juncture, but my writing partner Phil Galdston and I are working on some contacts in New York that might make a little bit of a run on some off-Broadway or on-Broadway situations.

So many conversations aren't happening right now, and the ones that are, are very circumspect, given the circumstances.

But thank you for asking. I love that piece, and I love performing it. It grows by leaps and bounds every time we get to do it, and Phil and I do so much editing. This was the first time the show came in under two hours! Woo-hoo! I'll take that!

RL: Have you played the Triple Door in Seattle before?

KE: I have. I played it with Branford [Marsalis] a couple of years ago. I must have done it one other time, five years ago or more, with my acoustic group.

They're really fantastic fellas that run that place, and I'm happy to do it. They treat us great. The food is memorable for its quality. Seattle's one of my favorite spots, and the Triple Door is a marvelous room — the piano's excellent and we have a good time. Of course, we won't use the piano this time, because it's "SuperBlue!"

RL: What else is on the horizon for you?

KE: Well, we're going to put this next "SuperBlue" album out as quick as we can. That's my chief thing. I'll be in the studio with those cats, I want to say in March. And so the writing has got to happen. And I've got some of these things that are just impossible to learn until you learn them, you know? We've got an Ornette Coleman thing happening this time, and to wrap my voice around the intervals of what Ornette played is a big challenge. As it is anytime with some of these longer pieces and more involved things, I've got a lot of work with that.

My friend Chris Walden wrote a jazz Mass that I'll be recording in February. Tierney Sutton is doing a lot of the singing on that as well, and that's for augmented big band. That's been pushed back a couple of times because of COVID. We were going to do it at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, and it was going to be a big, splashy thing. Now it'll just be in the studio, until August, we'll perform that in August.

And then my friend Steve DeRosa down in Texas has written a longer, larger piece — I think it's about 50 minutes — and I've got to learn all the music for that.

I'm also consulting with my friend Tommy Smith over in Scotland for another round of performances with him that would take place in 2023. We're trying to work on noir movie themes, or perhaps we leave the noir behind, or perhaps we leave the movie themes behind, depending on what's more productive.

So that's a whole list of things that would need lyric writing and arranging and such. And then, of course, Danilo and I still want to do some number of dates out there. I was supposed to have gone to Panama for the Panama Jazz Festival a couple of weeks ago, and then Danilo got COVID the night before I was supposed to fly. He was already down there. He founded that festival, you know, it was going to be a big deal for him. I really was excited about that because he's my brother. And then he got it. Thankfully it wasn't worse, but he couldn't make any of the concerts, even to host them or anything.

So, between a lot of fingers in a lot of pies, and trying to be some version of a father while I'm home and try to stand up to everything in that department, and not be a jerk and not have my head explode from all the craziness, you know, just trying to be a human being over here.

RL: Do you have any kind of routine for taking care of your voice?

KE: I've never been a smoker or anything, so that's a good thing. I must admit, I don't sing every day. I really should be doing a lot of that stuff, but the time just flies so quickly and I have so much writing to do. Prayer! There's a lot of prayer involved!

Kurt Elling and Charlie Hunter appear at Seattle's Triple Door Jan. 31 through Feb. 2.

Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.