One of my favorite vocalists is Kurt Elling (for a brief bio check out allaboutjazz.com). Elling embodies so many concepts I’m after:
- Pure, Clear Vocal Technique
This is so important, not only to sustain a long healthy career, but also because flawed technique literally creates physical obstacles that hinder a vocalist’s efforts. Common obstacles include poor breath support, bad alignment (aka posture), incorrect vowel shapes, tension in the body and numerous other issues.
- Harmonically Accurate Improvisation
Check out a few of his great solos: Tight [on Nightmoves, 2007], Downtown [on Live in Chicago, 2000], They Say It’s Wonderful [on Dedicated to You, 2009].
- Emphatic Lyric Interpretation
Elling performs lyrics with incredible ease. His approach, whether articulated softly or with a strong attack, always feels appropriate for an intimate conversation – like the first telling of a good story.
- Musical Versatility
Elling’s discography (1995-2009) provides a wide range of repertoire from the American Songbook, vocalese pieces, jazz standards, and original compositions. He works closely with his pianist, Lawrence Hobgoood, to develop refreshing arrangements that really develop the musical and lyrical content.
Elling is one of the most accurate singers I’ve heard when it comes to interpreting transcriptions. For example, check out my favorite vocalese piece with original lyrics by Kurt Elling: Body & Soul [on Night Moves, 2007] [originally performed by Dexter Gordon, on Homecoming – Live At The Village Vanguard].
Elling brings new life to songs-I-thought-I-knew. He also shares repertoire I’ve never heard from a vocalist such as Pat Metheny & Lyle May’s Minuano, [Man in the Air, 2003]. He
often writes beautiful lyrics to match which are posted on his website.
I am personally grateful for the challenge Elling presents contemporary jazz vocalists with each new album. My husband knows how much I love Elling’s work so he arranged for me to take a private lesson over my Spring Break. Elling was incredibly gracious and patient. I would recommend that all jazz vocalists study with Kurt Elling if at all possible. He gives masterclasses in NYC where you can reserve a spot to sing, or audit the class. He also offers private lessons in NYC as his schedule will allow (write firstname.lastname@example.org for more information). Sign-up for his monthly mailing list, so you can stay up to date on opportunities to see & hear Kurt Elling.
Here is a small portion of what he had to say at my lesson. Enjoy!
[I sang a Vocalese piece called “Soul Food” originally recorded by Lambert Hendricks & Ross [on Lambert Hendricks & Ross, The Hottest New Group In Jazz]. You can also hear Kurt sing it live. The piece was originally done by Horace Silver and titled “Home Cookin.”
“I’d comment that sometimes a slower tempo in performance can be helpful for a lot of things. We’re gonna spend a lot of time [practicing] and were gonna get to know the lyrics and we’re gonna understand all the jokes but there will be maybe one person in the room who has heard this before. So, to slow it down, at least until until you get all the nuances of it and can really sell all the parts (by way of hand gestures etc.) so that you’re working and you know it, but they [the audience] don’t know that you’re working it. Slowing stuff down can be a big help and it can also be a big help as you’re trying to beef up sections vocally. I’ve made that mistake on plenty of recordings. I wish I would have picked a slower tempo – for the audiences sake.”
Atla, how thrilling! How long did you spend with him? And is he the guy we heard sing at Tanglewood and who you talked to (last year or maybe the year before)?
Hi Sue! Yes, Kurt Elling is the fantastic singer we saw at Tanglewood. It was incredible to have the opportunity to work with him one-on-one. We worked for an hour.
He is such an amazing musician. I am so happy for you to have been able to work with him and thank you for sending me his mailing list.
Agreed!! I was really in a deep musical slump when I re-discovered his music. It had an amazing effect on me as a person and a musician!
5 crucial components for vocalists! I really appreciate the thoroughness and clarity of your blog.
Thanks Estar! I love writing about this stuff 😛