Kurt Elling: A Jazz Singer Stretches His Songbook A baritone with a four-octave range, Elling has been nominated for eight Grammy Awards. But for his new album, The Gate, he teams up with producer Don Was, who marshals improvisatory takes on The Beatles, Stevie Wonder and more.
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Kurt Elling: A Jazz Singer Stretches His Songbook

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Kurt Elling: A Jazz Singer Stretches His Songbook

Kurt Elling: A Jazz Singer Stretches His Songbook

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Kurt Elling is considered one of the best male jazz vocalists of our time. He's recorded eight albums, received eight Grammy nominations, and won his first Grammy last year for a live album of music by John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman.

Now, Kurt Elling is taking a few risks. He's teamed up with music producer Don Was, best known for his work with such artists as Bonnie Raitt, The Rolling Stones, and Al Green. Kurt Elling's new recording features reinterpretations of the Beatles, Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder and more. It's called "The Gate." Kurt Elling is in the studio at NPR New York. Welcome back to the program, Kurt.

Mr. ELLING: Thanks so much for having me on again.

HANSEN: And Don Was is in the studio at NPR WEST in Culver City, California. So nice to have you on the show, too.

Mr. DON WAS (Music Producer): It's great to be here, Liane. Thank you.

HANSEN: Let's talk about one of the tunes you do that is familiar to anyone who's aware of the Beatles discography. This is "Norwegian Wood" and it wasn't what I expected at all.

(Soundbite of song, "Norwegian Wood")

Mr. ELLING: (Singing) She told me she worked in the morning and then she started to laugh. I told her I didn't and I crawled off to sleep and toss in the bath...

HANSEN: Laurence Hobgood, I'll point out, is on piano on this CD. But, you know, on this song nobody expects the hot guitar solo.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Whose idea was that?

Mr. ELLING: That was mine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: That was yours.

Mr. ELLING: I get to know so many musicians who are out in the world and who most people don't know by name - John McClain, who plays guitar on this, is just a great, great player from Chicago who just really rocks it and has a signature approach to things.

(Soundbite of song, "Norwegian Wood")

HANSEN: Wow. I mean, you don't hear it the same way. It's just like you're hearing it a whole new way. Don Was, had you heard Kurt Elling sing before you wanted to work with him?

Ms. WAS: I had. Well, I wanted to work with him the instant I heard him. I was driving around in Los Angeles and the local station played "Not While I'm Around" from the "Flirting with Twilight" album and I pulled over. I had to wait and find out who that was singing 'cause it was truly one of the most stunning vocals I'd ever heard.

HANSEN: How would you describe his voice? I mean, he's a four octave baritone. I mean, did you see him as an orchestra?

Mr. WAS: You know, what really struck me the most was that in his phrasing and in his interpretation he doesn't waste a syllable, not a consonant. Everything is infused with meaning and he's totally inside the song, and that's really the thing that made me pull over.

(Soundbite of song, "Golden Lady")

Mr. ELLING: (Singing) Take me right away...

HANSEN: Kurt, you sing "Golden Lady," a Stevie Wonder song. Is it true that members of your band weren't quite sure this was a great idea?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELLING: Well, you know, it's one thing to play a track for somebody and not have to explain anything and they just hear it and their heart hears it and they don't have to analyze things, even if they're, you know, incredible musicians.

It's another thing entirely to say, hey, you know, I really want to take such and such a tune and I want to do it in this relatively obscure time signature. Because then you're talking about music. And then that other person who's listening to you has to try to imagine whether that's a good idea or not.

(Soundbite of song, "Golden Lady")

Mr. ELLING: (Singing) Looking in your eyes, kind of heaven eyes, closing both my eyes, waiting for surprise, to see the heaven in your eyes is not so far, 'cause I'm not afraid to try and go it...

It took me a millisecond to say, yeah, that's what we want to do. Let's at least give it a shot. And then it worked out, you know, and we don't have to worry about the fact that people are dancing in seven and they're not dancing in four.

(Soundbite of song, "Golden Lady")

Mr. ELLING: (Singing) And golden lady, golden lady, I'd like to go there...

HANSEN: I'm speaking with jazz vocalist Kurt Elling and music producer Don Was about their new collaboration recording called "The Gate."

Don Was, when you were working with Kurt - and given the instrument that he does have - I mean, he can sound like Jon Hendricks or Lou Rawls. I mean, I'm hearing all kinds of references in there. Given that you've worked with people like The Black Crowes and Ziggy Marley and Amos Lee, did you shape songs for his voice?

Mr. WAS: No. You give me way too much credit.

HANSEN: Come on, you didn't just sit there and move the dials or something, you know.

Mr. WAS: Well, I'll tell you - almost. Really, what you want to try to do as a producer is create an environment where your artist is comfortable taking a risk and stretching out. We didn't do too many takes of any song but if we went from a first take to a second take, he could hear it and know what to do.

Mr. ELLING: Yeah, I got to say, I mean, I've never been in a room with a guy who loves music more than Don. I mean, he would sit there with the same beatific look on his face, listening to, like, whatever number pass I had made on something and he would have the same beatific look on his face for the 10th, you know, percussion line that was being laid out. And even if you hadn't, like, quite made it, like, he'd be like, no, man. You know, you got one more in there, you know, you can make that better and you know what you're doing.

And to have him say over and over, man, you know, don't worry about the time, don't worry about how long this cut is; don't worry about this thing, don't worry about that; we got that covered. You know, all the things that I've had to do as somebody who's produced myself in the past - watching the clock, thinking about radio length, thinking about cost overruns - was taken out of my hands this time. And instead it was just supplanted with, hey, man, we all love each other here and we're about music and that's the reason we're in the room together.

(Soundbite of song, "Come Running to Me")

Mr. ELLING: (Singing) Come running from...

HANSEN: In the 1970s, Herbie Hancock actually sang with the help of electronic devices. In the song "Come Running to Me," Kurt, is that you and Laurence kind of channeling...

Mr. ELLING: That's me and a couple of clones.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "Come Running to Me")

Mr. ELLING: (Singing) Running, running to me...

HANSEN: Don Was, was it your idea to overdub Kurt's voice in the background when he's harmonizing with himself?

Mr. WAS: No, no, that's all Kurt.

HANSEN: Oh, man.

Mr. WAS: That was mind-blowing.

HANSEN: Those chords that he made with himself, I mean, just really.

Mr. WAS: Just some genius mind stuff going on.


Mr. WAS: It blew my mind. You know, I wasn't expecting him to sing any harmony overtones. But he said I have an idea, and he just went out there and just, you know, just to think of those particular parts. You might have noticed that that song, "Come Running to Me," it's never been covered by any singers because it's a really, really, really hard song to sing.

(Soundbite of song, "Come Running to Me")

Mr. ELLING: (Singing) Without the dark, you'd never know the night. Without the hush, you'd never know your dreams...

Mr. WAS: You have to have incredible pitch to jump these unlikely intervals and Herbie was only able to do it with a Vochorder.

Mr. ELLING: "Come Running to Me" has got really, OK, definitely difficult things to sing but it's really beautifully written and I think the lyric is really touching. And I have a five-year-old daughter at home and I wanted sing something for her and still reference Herbie and reference the jazz tradition and maybe play something that people hadn't thought to do before.

HANSEN: What about "Blue In Green" - Miles Davis, written by Bill Evans?

(Soundbite of song, "Blue In Green")

Mr. ELLING: (Singing) An eternity of blues, a sea of green...

HANSEN: Why did you want this tune on this CD?

Mr. ELLING: There's a real heavy preponderance of stuff from popular records that are on this record, but I'm still a jazz person, and I thought that "Blue In Green," especially with Al Jarreau's great lyric on there, I knew that with the new groove that we were going to put under it that it would take on a life of its own.

HANSEN: And, Don Was, you were there to say, yeah, yeah, yeah, that's good. We'll keep that one.

Mr. WAS: Well, I'll tell you something. I really believe he expanded the definition of jazz singing considerably with that performance. And as it was going down, I think everyone in the room had chills because we never heard anything like that before.

(Soundbite of song, "Blue In Green")

HANSEN: That's singer Kurt Elling and producer Don Was. They have collaborated on Kurt Elling's newest album called "The Gate," and it's on the Concord record label. Kurt Elling was in our New York studio. Don Was was in our studio at NPR West in Culver City. Thank you both, gentlemen. Great fun.

Mr. ELLING: Thank you.

Mr. WAS: It was a pleasure.

Mr. ELLING: Thank you for having us on.

(Soundbite of song, "Blue In Green")

Mr. ELLING: (Singing) Blue and green...

HANSEN: You can hear a live concert from Kurt Elling at NPRMusic.org.

This is NPR's WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

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