Moving as fast he's been known to scat sing to jazz tunes, Kurt Elling is always doing so much it can be hard to keep up. At just 44, his versatility is legendary. The celebrated American jazz singer can approach Nature Boy, first made famous by Nat King Cole, and make it his own as he croons "There was a boy/A very strange enchanted boy".
Then, just as effortlessly, he can choose the humorous and absurdist The Uncertainty of the Poet by acclaimed British poet Wendy Cope and sing "I am a poet/I am very fond of bananas. I am bananas/I am very fond of a poet".
This is also the man, with a master's degree in the philosophy of religion, who writes his own lyrics, with some in the tradition of beat poetry. On Tanya Jean, to the music of Donald Byrd, he declares: "Screaming across the open plains of nothingness comes everything that might have been, the great comets blasting through every dark sky".
You could imagine Elling singing this in a smoky Greenwich Village coffee shop in the late 50s, with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac in the audience.
"The thing that I do is already so demanding that I'm very grateful for a very diversified background, not in music but also in literature and philosophy and while not a vast cultural experience in the world I'm doing OK," says Elling, on the phone from his hometown of Chicago.
"You need all that in my position to really fuel your creative endeavours at this point, so you have an informed perspective about what you think and what you want to hear and how you want to deliver it to people."
So far the people and his peers are impressed. Elling, who performs in Wellington next week, has released albums since his 1995 debut on Blue Note. Every one has been nominated for a Grammy Award for best jazz vocal album and he won it for his 2010 album, Dedicated to You.
Elling is also a singer at ease outside jazz. He's worked and continues to work with trumpeter Orbert Davis, singer Jon Hendricks, guitarist Charlie Hunter and other jazz greats. At the same time he's collaborated with fellow Chicago musician Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins and the city's famous Steppenwolf Theatre that launched the careers of the likes of John Malkovich.
His latest album, The Gate, includes covers of The Beatles' Norwegian Wood, Joe Jackson's Steppin' Out, Stevie Wonder's Golden Lady and even prog rockers King Crimson. He's a big fan of guitarist Robert Fripp's group. "Yeah man, Fripp is a genius."
The album was produced by Don Was, best known for work with Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and Bonnie Raitt. Was heard Elling on a jazz radio station and was impressed with the singer's unique voice, at ease with different styles of singing, including "vocalese" where he sings new lyrics over previously written instrumentals or improvisations.
"I was really thrilled that we got to do something together because his energy was so supporting," says Elling. It's the same with others he's worked with, including his long-time pianist Laurence Hobgood. "You learn as much as you can from the people that you work with. That's why you want to surround yourself with the heaviest people that you can possibly get to."
Elling's four octave baritone was developed when he was singing as a boy in church choirs and it included singing in classical styles. But it was jazz including seeing the likes of Tony Bennet and Woody Herman on television that hooked Elling. "It has an extraordinary history and it's very American," he says. "It's full of new possibilities that lend themselves to the kind of creative thinking that I would naturally like to do anyway. I can juxtapose ideas and make a new creative gesture that sounds like me.
"I really don't have the inclination or wherewithal to try to make a similar event in the classical world ... at the same time I'm not really called to be a rocker or anything like that."
Elling admits it was tough going when he first started out. "When I came in I was kind of a wild gun," he says. "Now I'm significantly more road seasoned. I'm a better singer, now, and I've refined my technique and I can approach things with more subtlety and assurance and sure-footedness."
Elling is singing a lot. He just finished a stint in Amsterdam singing with the acclaimed Metropole Orkest. Later this year there's a tour with Charlie Hunter. He's back in the studio next month to record a new album. He's also working on a live project with Hobgood based on Frank Sinatra's set from a world tour he did 50 years ago for children's charities.
No regrets obviously. "I was broke anyway and I was on my own and had nothing to lose. I had everything to gain by giving it everything I could."
Kurt Elling performs with Rodger Fox's Wellington Jazz Orchestra,
The Globe Theatre, Palmerston North, April 3
Opera House, Wellington, April 4
Baycourt Theatre, Tauranga, April 6
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