The answer is, well, not many, at least not with the caliber and musical ambitions of Elling. Few singers pursue such a challenging repertoire; for instance, when he vocally interpreted a Charlie Haden bass solo on "Moonlight Serenade" from his 2001 album Flirting With Twilight. For Elling, though, it's less about reinventing the art form than updating the work of old masters like Joe Williams and Chet Baker and adding his immense talents and fresh ideas to what came before him.
"I'd say I'm one of the few who are trying to sing something new," says the laconic Elling during a phone interview from his Chicago home. He credits the work of midcentury singers like Mark Murphy and Jon Hendricks as his primary inspiration. "I'm one of the few who has really invested myself in the tradition and in the sound of the tradition in order to play the new idea from that tradition. We're always asked to play the new thing, but it's always based on the intelligence and the genius that has gone before."
Elling's forte lies in reviving the neglected art of vocalese, putting lyrics to instrumental jazz solos. On his sixth and most ambitious album yet, the forthcoming Man in the Air (due out on Blue Note Records in July), he covers an eclectic palette of songs, from Pat Metheny's "Minuano" and Joe Zawinul's "Time to Say Goodbye" to John Coltrane's "Resolution" and Courtney Pine's "Higher Vibe." On "Resolution," Elling matches the melody and rhythm of the famous tenor sax refrain with words Coltrane himself might have written for his spiritually infused music. "Buddha, tell a sutra like a spell," sings Elling. "Teach us well to enter silence with the calling bell/And Jesus, remember every promise made/Present yourself in the middle of the prayers that we make." The musicians themselves, led by long-time Elling collaborator Laurence Hobgood on piano, perform a close facsimile of the original, with Frank Parker, Jr.'s drum-playing matching the driving chaos of Coltrane's collaborator Elvin Jones. Man in the Air is a dazzling series of performances on which Elling seemingly channels the spirit of each song through his lyrics while masterfully accompanying his backing band with precision and range.
"In a lot of ways I think it's a moment of arrival. It's a record that I've been working my way up to," says Elling of his latest effort, a strong candidate to earn him his sixth consecutive Grammy nomination for best jazz album. But as good as Elling's recordings are, it's his live performances, where he strives to surprise and move his audiences with his bluesy, whimsical scatting chops, that get the most praise from his fans and jazz enthusiasts. He has also become known for inventing a new jazz vocal technique he calls "ranting" -- improvised melodies with improvised lyrics generated by a sort of story that springs from his thought processes.
He began "ranting" during the early, pre-Blue Note days of his career when he used to sing at weddings. The bandleader would ask him midsong to make announcements like the cutting of the cake or the tossing of the bouquet. But instead of stopping his performance, Elling would make the announcement by improvising rhymes and embellishing them with little stories made up on the spot. The style carried over into his jazz club gigs, which, according to Elling, turned into prolonged riffs on dream sequences, out-of-body experiences, and visions of past lives. "I just leapt out there -- and out pops a pretty prolonged subconscious offering," Elling explains on his website, www.kurtelling.com. "You can imagine how thrilling it was to feel this other door open."
Elling never formally studied music outside of a handful of voice lessons. Singing comes second nature to him. At an early age, his church musician father encouraged his abilities by giving him and his siblings instruments to play, and he also performed in several choral groups. "I've been singing since I can remember," says Elling.
But it wasn't until college when he first started to listen to jazz greats like Dexter Gordon, Herbie Hancock, and Dave Brubeck that he began singing jazz in earnest, sitting in and scatting with groups around the Gustavus College campus in Minneapolis. Later, his graduate studies in religious philosophy at the University of Chicago Divinity School gave him plenty of ideas to draw from. It's this education and erudite background that Elling credits for his unique perspective: the philosophical and literary awareness he brings to his music, infusing his lyrics and singing style in subtle but deep ways.
"It asks everybody to play something new every time," says Elling of jazz. "It allows you to address today, today. It's new music, it's intelligent, and it has a lot of depth to it."