Voice of a Generation
Kurt Elling brings heart and soul to MJF’s Next Generation Festival.
Thursday, April 20, 2006
Kurt Elling never participated in jazz competitions when he was an aspiring musician, but he fully appreciates the emotional stakes involved when young players lay it on the line in front of respected pros.
The most commanding male jazz singer to emerge in the 1990s, Elling will be offering advice and more through his role as artist-in-residence at the Next Generation Festival, which takes over downtown Monterey this weekend. Launched last year by the Monterey Jazz Festival, Next Generation is held in downtown Monterey’s Conference Center, with associated events adjacent to the Portola Plaza Hotel and near Fisherman’s Wharf. It includes the MJF’s 36th Annual National High School Jazz Competition, which features more than two-dozen high school ensembles, plus six middle school big bands, and six college bands. (See accompanying article, this page.)
All of the Next Generation events are free and open to the public, which means that you have a great opportunity to catch future jazz stars in action. The weekend draws hundreds of the finest jazz students from around the country to attend clinics and compete for prizes, scholarships, and the opportunity to perform at the 49th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival on Sept. 15-17.
“It must be petrifying,” says Elling, 38, in a phone interview from Newport News, Va. “It’s already so hard for people who want to be artists to have a lot of confidence. I know how harsh I can be on myself, and then to have somebody whose work you respect critique you, it’s a tender place to put yourself. I want to have respect for that, and only say things that are helpful.”
While Elling will be part of the panel judging the competitions for various combos and big bands, he’s also presenting a vocal solo workshop for aspiring jazz singers and accompanists. Not surprisingly, he’s particularly sensitive to the exposed nature of jazz singing (he keeps a running blog on his Web site that details his first anxiety-inducing trips to New York City).
“If you’re a singer, you’re completely vulnerable,” says the Chicago-raised Elling. “You don’t have a sax or piano in front of you. There’s no place to run, and if people start throwing things, it’s probably going to hit you. I look forward to having a little more time with the students, so it’s not straight-up evaluation, and I can tailor my feedback to relate to what they’re doing.”
In addition to his Next Generation responsibilities, Elling performs Thursday with his band at Monterey Live as part of the Monterey Jazz Festival’s Spring Concert Series. If it’s anything like his last appearance in the area, at the 2003 Monterey Jazz Festival, the audience is in for a rip-roaring evening. In a tour de force performance, he joined the Four Brothers, a generation-spanning showcase he assembled featuring vocalese legend Jon Hendricks, the supremely soulful Kevin Mahogany, and the brilliant Mark Murphy, whose sound has profoundly influenced Elling.
Not that his triumphant set was a surprise. As a six-time Grammy nominee signed to the prestigious Blue Note label, Elling has won the critics poll in Down Beat and JazzTimes three years in a row, as well as two Jazz Journalist Association Awards. Elling will continue his residency at the Monterey Jazz Festival’s Summer Jazz Camp from June 19-30, and perform throughout the MJF in September.
Elling started gaining attention as a chance-taking artist with a strong literary bent in the mid-’90s. Inspired by Murphy’s interpolation of seminal Beat texts on his 1981 Muse album Bop for Kerouac, Elling created a dynamic vocal approach in which verse and prose comfortably intermingle with lyrics and scatting. While Beat literature doesn’t turn up in his performances much anymore, the sensibility still pervades his stage persona.
“You go through phases,” Elling says. “I still have a very deep affection for Kerouac and all the Beat writers. But time moves on. I think at this point it’s a reference that’s deeply embedded enough so as to be unconscious.”
Elling’s literary aspirations have led to some fascinating multi-media collaborations with artists at Chicago’s renowned Steppenwolf Theater. He put together a show drawing on Allen Ginsberg’s poetry, and a show exploring the different artistic currents of LA, Chicago and New York. A few years ago he presented a collaboration with Terry Kinney, who founded Steppenwolf along with John Malkovich and Gary Sinise, called “Grand Obsessions and Petty Delusions,” in which he deconstructs the lyrics of standards like “All of You.”
While Elling honed his craft on the road, logging tens of thousands of miles to make far-flung club dates, he is very much a product of the Chicago scene. In many ways, he models his approach on the Windy City’s tough tenor tradition, drawing inspiration from Chicago saxophone titans like Johnny Griffin, Eddie Harris, Von Freeman and Ira Sullivan.
“I did a lot of gigs with a lot of cats in a lot of rooms that were pretty wild,” Elling says. “It’s a scene that I love and respect. And I want to be true to that and take the music further, and keep it going, and put my two cents in.”
KURT ELLING plays Thursday, April 20, at 7pm and 9pm at Monterey Live, 414 Alvarado St., Monterey. $25. montereylive.net or montereyjazzfestival.org.