The Jazz Singer Chicago-based jazz singer Kurt Elling consistently gets the top spot in music magazine polls for Best Male Vocalist. His new album Nightmoves, is his first for the Concord Jazz label.
NPR logo

Kurt Elling, Giving Jazz a Touch of Poetry

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Kurt Elling, Giving Jazz a Touch of Poetry

Kurt Elling, Giving Jazz a Touch of Poetry

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KURT ELLING (Singer): (Singing) Sleeping, waking, crying, leaving again.


Kurt Elling is a critically acclaimed and commercially successful jazz singer. The baritone has seven Grammy nominations and frequently gets the top spot in music magazine polls for best male vocalist. Elling is also a very brave man. In addition to lending his pipes to standards by Frank Sinatra, Betty Carter and Duke Ellington, he has the audacity to write lyrics for improvised solos of such artists as Wayne Shorter, Keith Jared and Dexter Gordon.

His new CD, "Nightmoves," showcases his excellence in the art of vocalese. It's his seventh recording, the first for the Concord jazz label, and Kurt Elling joins us from member station WBAA in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Welcome to the program, Kurt.

Mr. ELLING: Well, thank you so much. How kind of you to have me.

HANSEN: Why do you do it? Why do you...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELLING: Why indeed. It's not getting me anywhere. Why would I continue? I -You know, I do it because it's one of the many things that a jazz singer can do that is unique to the art of jazz singing. There's sort of a jazz cliche saying - you know, when a great tenor player is taking a solo, somebody in the audience is saying, man, tell your story.

Well, I get to be the person that at least is pretending to translate that tenor player's story from the world of abstract, beautiful music into the language of something that everybody can understand, and it's still the same notes. So it's a big intellectual and spiritual challenge to create, and it's a monumental technical challenge to recreate in order to sing.

HANSEN: Let's take an example.

(Soundbite of "I Like the Sunrise")

Mr. ELLING: (Singing) I like the sunrise because it brings a new day. I like a new day. It brings new hope, they say.

HANSEN: "I Like the Sunrise," written by Duke Ellington. You use tenor saxophonist Von Freeman's improvised melody from a 2002 recording, and then the lyrics are adapted from the 13th century Persian poet Rumi. Why does this work for you?

Mr. ELLING: Intuition. You know, Duke has always had, for me and I think for many Duke Ellington fans, a very natural and graceful spiritual element to the things that he wrote and the things that he got his orchestra to play. So it seemed to me a very natural link-up between Duke and Von Freeman, whom I know very well, and then of course Rumi, who's having this wonderful renaissance.

It's, you know, everything I do is an experiment, and when it comes out on the other end, if it seems seamless, then that's a beautiful thing.

HANSEN: Do you often go to literary references for inspiration?

Mr. ELLING: Yeah, I do. It's called stealing from the rich.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Like Walt Whitman, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELLING: Absolutely. Public domain, baby.

HANSEN: What was the most challenging tune to add lyrics to on this recording?

Mr. ELLING: Well, on this recording, the most challenging thing to add lyrics to for me was Dexter Gordon's solo, three choruses strong, on "Body and Soul." "Body and Soul" has such a long and storied history among jazz people. It has a previously existing lyric, in fact it has two, and I actually was banging my head against "Body and Soul" for maybe 10 years hoping to have the right moment of inspiration and the right element of discipline so that I could figure out what I was going to say about it.

HANSEN: And your lyrics are personal to you.

Mr. ELLING: Yeah, they are. They come out of the inspiration of being a father for the first time, and they're addressed pretty specifically to my daughter, Luiza, who's 17 months old now. She doesn't understand them yet, but I think she gets the idea.

HANSEN: Ah, and you'll keep playing it over and over and over again until she does.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELLING: Until she's sick of it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of "Body and Soul")

Mr. ELLING: (Singing) That's why our teachers teach "The Itsy Bitsy Spider" to the smallest ones: We need a fight song to keep us moving along. I should've sung it when thinking you gone. You weren't lost. You were coming. I'll teach you. I hope to give you love that shows you wonders that only love can show and more than you'll ever know. I do love you so. You have got a life living in you and with and through you. That's what a father's love should teach you.

HANSEN: Have you ever gotten any backlash, you know, criticism for taking on tunes that some might consider sacred?

Mr. ELLING: Oh, every once in a while I'll get a call - I'll be on, you know, I'll be on a jazz radio station someplace, and we'll be talking about my version of John Coltrane's "Resolution" - and this is the second movement from his great master work, "A Love Supreme" - and you know, walking into it, I felt a very keen sense of obligation and duty to the history of that piece to what I consider to be Coltrane's intention about "A Love Supreme."

I should say that, you know, I mean I got permission from Alice Coltrane. She was in favor of my recording it. She was in favor of the content, and also I got in touch a little bit later on with Ravi, and Ravi Coltrane came out to one of my sets and, man, he was over the moon when we laid out "A Love Supreme," and he was, like, man, that is the way stuff is supposed to sound. That's the way my father's music is supposed to sound.

So I feel, like, okay, you know, from - as far as the source is concerned, I'm cool, I'm clean.

HANSEN: What's your process when you're choosing material?

Mr. ELLING: It's just stuff that I fall in love with, the same as any jazz fan, same as any music fan. And you know, since I'm on the road, the iPod is happening, so I'm always listening and always falling in love with pieces that I haven't heard before or being reminded of things that I was in love with when I was in high school or college or last year, and certain things stay with you.

HANSEN: I have to admit I was taken aback a little bit when I was listening to the CD, and all of a sudden I heard you singing The Guess Who's 1969 pop hit, "Undone."

(Soundbite of song, "Undone")

Mr. ELLING: (Singing) She's come undone. She didn't know what she was headed for. And when she found what she was headed for, it was too late. Now it's too late. She's gone too far. She lost the sun. She's come undone. She's come undone.

HANSEN: What did you hear in the original that spoke to your way of singing?

Mr. ELLING: A lot of times, pop tunes like that are all about possibility. That's not the first time I've tackled a popular tune from what amounts to my childhood. I've done an Association tune, a Steve Miller Band. We do a couple of Steve Miller things in the set every once in a while.

HANSEN: You don't do "Space Cowboy," do you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELLING: I might attempt a little "Space Cowboy." You should come out to a gig sometime.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Is "Nightmoves" a concept disc? I mean, the order of songs, it's arranged so that there are songs about, you know, twilight, and it kind of takes us through the night, and then it's dawn.

Mr. ELLING: Well, first of all, every time I make a record, no matter what else I do, I want to make something that helps people feel better. In this case, I had an idea about making a soundtrack for a film that doesn't exist. So in my mind, I mean, I could put the record on, and I can say, well, here goes the guy. He's going out for the night, getting ready to go. Oh, lost his chick. Oh - hey, found another chick. All right, he's going to make it now. Oh, look at that. He's - they're getting on so well, he's telling her things he's always wanted to tell somebody and has never had the chance.

HANSEN: And so how does the date end up? What happens when the sun comes over the horizon?

Mr. ELLING: Well, he's got to leave again. He's got work to do.

HANSEN: Oh. It's so sad.

Mr. ELLING: Which is where leaving again comes in. But it's all redeemed because he realizes the value of another day, and that's where the Duke Ellington piece finishes out the night and into the sunrise.

But you don't have to listen to the record that way to like it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Singer Kurt Elling. His new CD on the Concord jazz label is called "Nightmoves." It will be released on April 3rd, and he joined us from member station WBAA in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Thanks a lot, Kurt. Good luck with this.

Mr. ELLING: Liane, it's a great pleasure. Thank you so much.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ELLING: (Singing) She wanted truth but all she got was lies. She's come undone.

HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.