Kurt Elling: Vocalese Virtuoso

Kurt Elling: Vocalese Virtuoso

Written by Anne E. Johnson

Instead of going to music school, singer Kurt Elling earned a history degree from a small liberal arts college and then went to the University of Chicago Divinity School. As he puts it on his website, if he hadn’t made that choice, “I doubt that I would be able to bring to bear the wider philosophical and literary awareness I have.” Everything about Elling’s artistry is wide-ranging, particularly his broad taste in genres and willingness to try absolutely anything, from swing to Bach to hip hop. He must be doing something right; almost all his albums have been nominated for at least one Grammy Award.

Elling, 55, was born and raised in Chicago, where he also got his jazz career off the ground. His father was the music director at a Lutheran church, and Elling sang in the school choir and learned several orchestral instruments as a kid. He also loved the swinging styles of Tony Bennett and Louis Armstrong.

While in college at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, his tastes expanded. Besides the singing of Joe Williams and Al Jarreau, he admired the instrumental work of Dexter Gordon and Dave Brubeck. But the musician he credits as “the door through which I found out about the broadest range of jazz singing possibilities” is singer Mark Murphy (1932 – 2015), who pioneered a vocal style ideal for modern jazz. At the center of Murphy’s style was his complex approach to a jazz songwriting technique called vocalese. Elling was fascinated by the connection Murphy made between bebop and beat writers, particularly Jack Kerouac.

According to an essay by Elling, jazz vocalese has a different function from jazz scat. Scat is a vocal but wordless improvisation, whereas vocalese takes an existing composed or improvised instrumental solo (which the singer has transcribed) and adds words. He considers the trio of Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks, and Annie Ross to be the “zenith” of vocalese from the 1960s. In the 21st century, Elling has brought the art to a new height and widened its reach to include jazz-adjacent genres like funk and R&B.

Enjoy these eight great tracks by Kurt Elling. 

  1. Track: “Those Clouds Are Heavy, You Dig?”
    Album: Close Your Eyes
    Label: Blue Note
    Year: 1995

In 1995, Elling signed with Blue Note. Close Your Eyes, his debut, secured him his first Grammy nomination. On this album, Elling also debuted his longtime association with pianist and arranger Laurence Hobgood.

“Those Clouds Are Heavy, You Dig?” is a vocalese based on improvised solos recorded by Paul Desmond and Dave Brubeck. Elling’s beat-style poetry reflects his background in religious philosophy.


  1. Track: “Prayer for Mr. Davis”
    Album: The Messenger
    Label: Blue Note
    Year: 1997

Laurence Hobgood is the primary producer of The Messenger. This is also the first album featuring the trio of Hobgood plus a drummer and bassist as Elling’s accompaniment, in this case Paul Wertico and Rob Amster, respectively.

“Prayer for Mr. Davis” is the last song in the three-part Suite, composed by Hobgood and Elling. Orbert Davis plays flugelhorn, while Elling seems to imitate that instrument in his vocal line.


  1. Track: “My Foolish Heart”
    Album: This Time It’s Love
    Label: Blue Note
    Year: 1998

Elling’s third album, This Time It’s Love, brought him his third Grammy nomination. 

Although he’s best known for vocalese, Elling has made many recordings of more conventional songs. “My Foolish Heart,” the jazz standard by Victor Young and Ned Washington, shows what he can do with a well-known tune. The classic elements remain recognizable while Elling makes it entirely his own both rhythmically and melodically. His spare use of vibrato and the graininess of his voice bring to mind the work of Mel Tormé. 


  1. Track: “Orange Blossoms in Summertime”
    Album: Flirting with Twilight
    Label: Blue Note
    Year: 2001

For Flirting with Twilight, Elling and Hobgood decided to bring in a horn section. The record was nominated for two Grammys; it won Best Jazz Vocal Album.

For “Orange Blossoms in Summertime,” Elling set original lyrics to a solo tune that bassist Curt Lundy composed for his 1983 album Beatitudes. Elling had been performing his version for almost 10 years but had never gotten around to recording it until Flirting with Twilight. On the jacket notes, he credits drummer Peter Erskine and bassist Marc Johnson for the track’s flavor.


  1. Track: “A Secret I”
    Album: Man in the Air
    Label: Blue Note
    Year: 2003

Hobgood’s trio for Man in the Air uses Amster on bass. Wertico plays drums on only one track, with Frank Park Jr. handling the rest. The special guest for this album is vibraphonist Stefon Harris.

Elling dug up some particularly interesting instrumental source material to add lyrics to on this album, including John Coltrane and Pat Metheny. Herbie Hancock’s early composition “Alone and I” is the basis of the vocalese track “A Secret I.”


  1. Track: “Autumn Serenade”
    Album: Dedicated to You
    Label: Concord
    Year: 2009

The subtitle of Dedicated to You, a live album from Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series, is Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman. The concert was a tribute to a classic jazz album from 1963, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. Ernie Watts plays tenor saxophone. Although Elling had left Blue Note and signed with Concord, he brought Hobgood with him as producer and pianist.

Elling takes “Autumn Serenade” at a faster clip than Coltrane and Hartman’s recording, and Watts’ saxophone is the main feature, the opposite of the earlier version, which focuses on the voice. While Elling does not share Hartman’s silky bass, his earnest delivery of the lyrics makes them effective in a different way.


  1. Track: “Come Fly with Me”
    Album: 1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project
    Label: Concord
    Year: 2012

From the 1930s through the early 1970s, the Brill Building in Manhattan was home to dozens of music businesses and the center of American popular songwriting. Elling’s album 1619 Broadway celebrates the entire era, from Al Dubin and Harry Warren’s “I Only Have Eyes for You” (composed in 1934) to Paul Simon’s “An American Tune” (1973). Along the way are some hits from the 1950s (Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me”) and the 1960s (Carole King’s “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” made famous by the Monkees). This was Hopgood’s last producing project for Elling.

“Come Fly with Me,” from 1958, was written by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, who did quite a trade from their Brill Building office. Elling’s version of the melody is barely recognizable as he entwines it with contrapuntal lines from flugelhornist Kye Palmer and tenor saxophonist Tom Luer.


  1. Track: “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”
    Album: The Questions
    Label: Okeh Records
    Year: 2018

The album The Questions shows Elling’s breadth. He alternates standards like Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark" with thoughtful rock songs like Peter Gabriel’s “Washing of the Water” and vocaleses using the poetry of Rumi and Wallace Stevens. Branford Marsalis, who also plays soprano saxophone on the album, co-produces with Elling.

One doesn’t expect to find Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” on a jazz album, yet here it is, in an arrangement by the record’s pianist and organist Stu Mindeman. Elling sings the first verse a cappella with significant reverb. Dissonant instrumental tones enter gradually. The effect is powerful.


Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Simon Bierwald, cropped to fit format.

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