Before & After: Kurt Elling

photo by Larry Appelbaum

Kurt Elling sat for this JazzTimes B&A one winter afternoon just before his 2004 New Year’s Eve show at the Kennedy Center. We began by listening to one of his favorite singers.

1. Mark Murphy
“Charleston Alley” (from Jazz Standards, 32 Jazz). Murphy, vocal; David Braham, piano;
Harry Leahy, guitar; Gerry Niewood, sax; Ted Curson, trumpet; Ed Caccavale, drums; Larry Killian, percussion. Recorded 1984, reissued 1998.

I love everything about the way Mark approaches all this Lambert, Hendricks & Ross stuff, and I know this recording really well. The thing about vocalese is that by its nature it has a tendency to be re-creative in a way. I mean, you’ve copped somebody’s solo or arrangement or whatever. But Mark comes on with his personality and his own musical identity so strong that it recreates a vocalese in a way that is totally Mark, and in a way that I have a real hard time imagining anybody else really accomplishing. It’s a completely unique artistic thumbprint. I mean, Jon [Hendricks] writes the grand lyric and performs with such a stately and magnificent representation of that which he’s apprehended. Then Mark comes on and he doesn’t need three people or a choir or whatever to do it–it’s just Mark and it’s totally whack, and it’s a totally new experience again. I’ve always thought that’s one of the greatest ways that Mark displays his ingenuity. Because he’s not hindered by the intricacies of somebody’s solo, and he can even recreate that and cast it in his own image.

Have you ever talked with him about this?

Mark doesn’t really take compliments very easily. You have to catch him in the right mood and be in the right place. And this [interview] is an ideal opportunity because I think he probably takes a lot more stuff in from what he reads. We’re friends and I know he’s been very generous about my thing and coming on the road with me and trusting me. It humbles me and makes me want to live up to that trust. I love talking about great singers. I hope you don’t give me any tragic ones [laughter].

2. Rene Marie
“How Can I Keep From Singing?” (from Live At Jazz Standard, MaxJazz). Marie, vocal. Recoded in 2002.

Before: [listens straight through in rapt attention, chuckles at the scat] That’s hip. That’s nice. She sounds young. I mean, she might not be, it’s just the quality of her voice sounds young. It’s not weathered, you know? It’s like a traditional hymn; it’s not a spiritual. That’s a nice thing to do. Maybe that’s an encore? It’s a good encore, or a good opener, one of the two. I suspect this might be one of the singers on the, what’s that great label that’s got all those singers on it, where the covers all look the same? MaxJazz. That’s a hip label. It’s seems like they’re trying to really get something going that’s real. I don’t know who this is. Who’s this?

After: Ok. I’ve met her. She’s real nice. We just met one time out in Hartford someplace. She seems like she’s going in a lot of directions. She’s writing a bunch of stuff. Oh, that’s at The Jazz Standard. I would say it’s a drag that her audience was so cowed. She was looking for somebody to sing back at her. I like how unadorned it is. For her to just come out with this straightforward thing, and for the pitch to be so nice and for it to be so approachable and good-natured. It’s not that easy to be that vulnerable and to be that joyful, and we need as many representations of that as we can get right now. That’s a lovely gift that she gave.

3. Dena DeRose
“I’ve Never Been In Love Before” (from I Can See Clearly Now, Sharp Nine). DeRose, vocal, piano; Dwayne Burno, bass; Matt Wilson, drums. Recorded in 2000.

That’s almost like a Chet Baker sound, isn’t it? Is she playing too? Could this be, oh what’s her name? She had carpal tunnel for a while and she came back. She was out at Stanford Jazz Workshop. She’s a smart lady. Dena DeRose, right? Sounds just percolate in the world, you know? So I’m always hesitant to say, oh, she’s coming out of this bag, because I don’t know what she listened to when she was coming up. But the way I hear it is like, wow, there’s a lot of Anita O’Day in there. And I noticed in the phrasing there was a very nice, loose Chet Baker thing. And of course her time feel is so great cause she’s really worked hard. Yeah, she’s smart, man. I really like Dena, I like her attitude and I like how dedicated she is.

What does smart mean in this context?

You know, musically informed. I always respect people who do their homework and don’t have to hide behind anything, who can walk on and show the room what it’s like to be a jazz singer. Professional, upright cat, you know? And her time feel is great. I’d like to hear more stuff that she’s been writing. Most of the jazz people tend to write stuff that’s too smart to be played on the radio. She’s great.

4. Jane Monheit
“Embraceable You” (from Taking A Chance On Love, Sony). Monheit, vocal; Romero Lubambo, guitar. Recorded in 2004.

This is probably . . . I‘m so bad with names, she was with Mary Ann [Topper] for a long time. Her instrument is so [pause] liquid. It’s a real thing. The sound of the voice is a real thing, you can’t walk away from it. The subtlety of it, of what she’s able to do with her instrument is really sweet. It’s Jane Monheit. I haven’t heard her do a whole lot of throw-down stuff, but that’s not her bag. And I’ve never heard her live, so I don’t know how that goes either. There’s the deeper question that confronts many younger singers – and that is: What is it that you’ve fallen in love with? What is the sound you are after? What are you trying to get to that doesn’t come from someone else’s idea of you or from something that you’ve heard done before? What is it that will justify the audience’s attention and hope fifteen, twenty, thirty years from now? I mean like, for instance, Dena is gonna come across with intervallic ideas that are a lot more interesting and she’s gonna have a lot of stuff that she brings as a musician that’s gonna be a trip to dig. And here with Jane you’re just gonna drink this in and let it roll over you. [looks at cover and notices recording engineer] See, Al Schmitt. Of course it sounds good. Al can make scraping concrete sound good, not that Jane needs any help. I don’t know the details of her thing but when you’re real young like that you get a lot of help making choices. And a lot of things fell into place for her that I know took a lot of work, because nothing happens easily in this business. You know, it’s hard to become yourself. It takes a long time and requires much focus and silence and a quiet ripening – and it cannot be rushed. Of course, there are those who seem to come onto the stage fully formed and fully their own right from the downbeat. But I have a feeling that Jane is going to have some adventures on the way to self-discovery. And that will be interesting to watch.

How much of her success do you think is based on what she looks like?

I don’t know. I don’t know. You bring up an interesting point. It’s exactly what we’re talking about. I’m not throwing any stones. But this photograph over that photograph makes a world of difference, no matter how you look. Cary Grant does not look as good from this angle. And that’s just a tiny example of the kind of decision, and the broad array of decisions both small and large that come into play that a manager needs to help you make.

Any advice for Ms Monheit?

[laughter] She doesn’t need any advice from me. She’s a big star. [laughter] Just keep being beautiful and be nice to everybody as much as you possibly can. Sound good all the time and work your ass off.

5. Horace Silver
“Wipe Away The Evil” (from The United States of Mind, Blue Note). Silver, electric keyboard; Gail Nelson, vocal; Randy Brecker, trumpet; Houston Person, tenor sax; Bob Cranshaw, bass; Mickey Roker, drums. Recorded in 1970.

Before: [laughs] Oh that’s a sound. All right! I love that keyboard sound, man. It’s so out. It reminds me of playing with Von Freeman and guys would come in with the cheapest axes and they’d plug them into a bass amp and play with all this distortion. Is this a recent recording? It sounds like something Horace would have produced ’cause it sounds like total soul food. And for a while he was using that kind of keyboard sound. [listens to the tenor solo] This is probably somebody I should know.

After: Oh, this is Horace. Gail Nelson. Roker, you can’t go wrong there. It’s funky man. I love it. I love all the attitude. Horace could be a church. The sound that he brought was so spirit driven. And his attitude was all about that. Get that throw-down spirit moving, man, that’s the deal.

6. Fred Hersch & Norma Winstone
“The Eighth Deadly Sin” (from Songs & Lullabies, Sunnyside). Hersch, piano; Winstone, vocal; Gary Burton, vibes. Recorded in 2002.

Oh, this is that Fred project with uh, oh what’s her name? [thinks] She’s great, we did gigs together. She came over from the UK. Norma Winstone. Here’s something that’s great about her. Her improvisational thing is equally informed as a Dena DeRose and people who are fully playing musicians. I mean she pulls some intervals out that are very ingenious and show very deep study. And that great, natural pure sound that she gets is really a beautiful thing. Those records she made with the Kenny Wheeler ensembles in the 80s are really great. And she’s a wonderful lyricist, as evidenced by this record. So many of her lyrics have a mystery or an obscurity to them that I’m unable to attain as a lyricist. There’s a subtlety to it that is like the great poetry that you have to read four, five or six times before something comes to you, even though there‘s always an immediate emotional impact. She’s delicious, man. She’s such a lovely person too. She’s just very open and excited about ideas, with a lovely sense of humor. Easy to be on the road with.

Why do you think she’s not better known?

[chuckles] Why isn’t Andy Bey better known? Why isn’t Mark a big star? It’s inscrutable. Possibly she hasn’t had the opportunity to tour as much. Obviously, a lot of her stuff isn’t always the stuff that most of the jazz people want to hear. People want to be able to snap their fingers, like with the Horace and the Rene Marie. Norma’s thing is a lot more delicate than that. It’s esoteric and luminous. I just think she’s really beautiful.

7. Al Hibbler & Rahsaan Roland Kirk
“Lover Come Back To Me” (from A Meeting of The Times, Atlantic/Collectibles). Hibbler, vocal; Kirk tenor sax; Hank Jones, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Oliver Jackson, drums. Recorded in 1972.

Before: See, this is the stuff that you’d never hear from Norma. [laughs at Hibbler’s elastic enunciation] All right! That’s a strong flavor. I have no idea who this is but I love him. He has seen some nights in some clubs and he’s made some people very happy. [laughter] You know who it’s closest to is Milt Trenier. It’s not Milt, cause Milt doesn’t have this voice, but it’s got that whole show-biz thing. This guy’s a bar-walker from way back and he doesn’t even play tenor. [checks out the tenor solo] I almost want to say it’s like an Eric Dolphy moment, but it’s obviously not the right instrument. Whoo-hoo! He’s hired. These are probably some really heavy cats. I love that. Ha ha ha. You got me. If this guy were still alive I’d definitely go check him out, just to see how he’s holding up [laughter].

After: Wow. I mean, what a flavor. Rahsaan I would definitely hire. What do you say? Another individualist genius who didn’t take any bullshit from anybody. You gotta respect that.

7. Luciana Souza
“I Will Come Back” (from Neruda, Sunnyside). Souza, vocal, percussion. Released in 2004.

Before: Oh, this is Luciana. What’s not to love? She’s a total musician: Pitch perfect, all the stuff that she does with poetry, the intelligence of her arranging ideas, the subtlety of her approach to just about everything, her inclusive curiosity. She’s totally approachable, but in a way that’s proud and self-contained in the best possible way; Justified, untainted and worthy. Just worthy. So don’t fuck around with her. [chuckles] You know?

After: [looks at the cover] I love Neruda too. She’s just great. I told her I loved her. I’m in the fan club, believe me. Hyperbolically speaking, she’s without peer at this time in her field of inquiry. She’s following where it takes her. She’s a long-term artist. She’s gonna be with us as long as she feels like being with us. And the smart people are gonna know to go out to her sets. And everybody else can go to hell [laughter].

9. Bjork
“Desired Constellation” (from Medúlla, Elektra). Bjork, vocal; The Icelandic Choir, vocal; Olivier Alary, programming. Released 2004.

[immediately] Oh, it’s Bjork. I don’t know of anybody else that sounds like that. And the way she pronounces everything. It’s got that fractalized element to it. It’s really spooky. It’s cool. I like it. Is this that new thing of hers? I’ve got to download that. This is music to listen to getting stoned in the dark. Pretty loud, too. Her stuff is probably really good to read the lyrics to as well, to just read ’em and check out what she’s on about. Yeah, she’s the real deal, man. She’s an artist. She’s an artist whose medium is sound and her voice and the presentation of that is the primary paintbrush. But she makes her own canvases. She makes her own unique shapes of canvases. She doesn’t just paint on canvas. She paints on objects and the sky and on people, you know. What can you even say? Somebody of her level of ingenuity and artistic identity, you can’t even really peg them on any kind of a sliding scale with any other artist because they just have something that is such a high level of idea processing about sonic possibilities. Where do you even start? She’s really incredible. I’ve got to get this.

10. Pearl Bailey & Moms Mabley
“Saturday Night Fish Fry” (from Stars of the Apollo, Columbia). Bailey, Mabley, vocal; Ray Tunia, piano; Tony Mottola, guitar; Bob Haggart, bass; Specs Powell, drums. Recorded in 1949.

Before: See now, Al Hibbler is a lot closer to this; the show biz, vaudevillian, put on a show. The hip thing about the way this goes down is that their timing is still really on. They never miss the thing and they’ve got all these bits going back and forth. [laughter] There you go. A couple of pros. It could have been Pearl Bailey. Who was working it out with Pearl Bailey? That’s a lot of fun.

After: Ahhh. No wonder they had such a good time together. You know Jon [Hendricks] has these great stories about Moms coming up. They used to be on double bills together. [tells off-the-record story about Moms Mabley and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross] Get Queen Latifah to throw that shit down, now you’re talking about something. Get her to make a movie about that.

11. Jeanne Lee
“Worry Now Later” (from You Stepped Out of A Cloud, Owl). Lee, vocal; Blake, piano. Recorded in 1989.

Before: Well that’s hip. I’d listen to a whole record of that. It’s like a very obscure art miniature. Is the whole record like that? I never heard Betty Carter in that kind of atmosphere, with that kind of accompaniment, but the vocal quality had a little bit of that in it. But then her vibrato wasn’t the same at all. I could hear her smiling all the way through. She really had a good time. I have no idea who that was. But it was like, what did you get, Cecil Taylor to back you up on this? Talk to me about that. I liked it. I give up.

After: Hmm. Is she out now? [Lee died in 2000]. I liked that. That’s hip. See, this kind of thing gives you hope, that something this interesting has a life. [looks at liner booklet] Look at this, it’s all in French. Of course. Those guys are ready to hear anything, god bless ‘em. [laughter] Stuff towards the edges. Gotta have it.

Do you spend much time on the edges?

I don’t know. Which part? When?

I mean in your life? Musically?

I don’t spend enough time on the edges these days cause I’m busy. I can’t be an entrepreneur, a touring artist who’s his own bandleader, road manager, idea bank, and also be Vice-Chair of the Recording Academy and take on that kind of mind-set, and also be at the edge. I can’t be both at once and stay married. I hope to spend a lot of prolonged time at the edges again as soon as I push aside things that are impeding that progress. I shouldn’t say impeding–I’ve chosen to hone a different set of skills for a while and apprehend a kind of information that is also valuable. And I’ve chosen to give my energies to a series of tasks which are not immediately musical, but that I hope will bear fruit for myself and for our community. I mean, it’s important. Jazz people should know that the way we’re gonna change parts of the world that could help us are to become more involved in them and not to stand on the side and throw rocks at it while it goes by. You gotta get on that train, or on that 18-wheel behemoth that’s bearing down and you got to put your hand on the steering wheel a little bit. And the only way for that to happen is to get an invitation. Or to make an invitation for yourself. It’s a challenge. It’s a difficult thing to balance ultimately, and I hope that by the time I’m 80 I will have figured out how to do something about that balance. [smiles]

12. Duke Ellington and Mahalia Jackson
“Come Sunday” (from Black Brown & Beige, Columbia). Duke Ellington Orchestra; Mahalia Jackson, vocal. Recorded in 1958.

Yeah. I thought it was Duke right away. And this is Mahalia Jackson. I know this recording very well. Part of Duke’s elegance was his gracious way with people. He never condescended. There’s such an abundance to his ability to give and to extend a welcome and to set an abundant table for the audience, for the band, for visiting dignitaries. He was the host. He goes to the White House and he’s the host. And this is a lovely example of that. Here’s a situation where the material was made in such a way that Mahalia was the necessary conduit. It’s so tightly, so lovingly made. I always heard, in my imagination, that she was conscious not only of praising God, but that she really wanted to sing this well for Duke. You want to sing the best thing that you can sing. She recognized, I think, the moment she was in. To have that opportunity and to be Mahalia Jackson with Duke Ellington. There’s a reciprocity there that is really endearing and very powerful and really important. Two beautiful artists full of grace and openhearted energy for each other and for the material. And that’s why this kind of recording has lasted and will last because of actual people doing this at that level. It’s a simple melody and there’s not a lot of crinolated anything. It’s just direct. It’s like among the best possible things that human beings can do. And that’s what makes it so magnificent to listen to over and over again. There are very few who have it in that measure.

Who else comes to mind?

Louis Armstrong was definitely at that level. Wayne [Shorter] is a very heavy representative of something extraordinary in his personal bearing. I think Billy Higgins had the kind of exemplary dignity I’m talking about . . . I suspect Danilo Perez will also grow into that depth of communication. He already has so much joy and transparency in his approach to music, people and life. Rilke. Rumi is somebody who could have really changed the world. There are so few. We’re really at a loss these days and we’re particularly in need right now.

Which vocal recordings had the deepest impact on you?

Probably one of the LHR things, the one with Sweets, I think it‘s called The Hottest New Group In Jazz. Well, Mark, it goes without saying. Bop For Kerouac had a heavy, heavy hit on me. And Mark Murphy Sings is really a great record. I feel bad about the engineering on that record cause it’s really harsh. You know, there’s a great Joe Williams record called A Swinging Night At Birdland that’s a really good record. All the kids should hear that record and take a lesson from that. If they want to know how to do it and really be in that bag, they should listen to Joe do that deal. And Sweets is on that too. That’s a great record. I love that one. I sing along with that all the time.


4 comments on “Before & After: Kurt Elling

  1. Kurt Elling says:

    Hi Larry. Thanks for pulling this out. I had forgotten we did this. Reading it again I remember the tracks & stand by it all 100%.

    Thanks for remembering me.


    • Thanks, Kurt. Btw, I like your new record. I played it during a recent B&A I did with Gretchen Parlato. I think you’ll be interested in what she had to say about it.

      Take care,


  2. av says:

    Thank you for posting this interview, Larry!

  3. In The Mood For Love

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