When vocalist Kurt Elling, a lifelong Chicagoan, moved his family to New York City in 2008, it wasn’t an easy decision. He had been inspired to become a singer because of the city’s jazz and blues scene and developed his chops working with some of its leading exponents. “I don’t think I would have even considered the possibility [of a jazz career] had it not been for the great musicians on the Chicago scene, and their generosity in inviting me to sit in with them over and over again and pulling me in,” he said. “Without them, it would have just been [the inspiration of] recordings.”
Elling, who will appear Jan. 27 as part of a Symphony Center Presents Jazz Series concert with the Branford Marsalis Quartet, was named top male jazz vocalist in DownBeat magazine’s annual critics poll from 2000 through 2013 — an extraordinary run. To rise to the pinnacle of his field, he relied on the help of the Jazz Members Big Band (now the Chicago Jazz Orchestra) and such Chicago greats as saxophonists Von Freeman and Eddie Johnson, who allowed him to perform with them and perfect his craft. “It was a generous time, and it wasn’t really until I was doing that that I realized that such a scene even existed, and you could be a part of it and that it was living, breathing and thriving.”
By 2008, Elling had gained international recognition, but he realized that if wanted to work with new collaborators and continue to challenge himself, he needed to make a shift. So he set off for New York City, which arguably remains this nation’s jazz capital. Just the kind of challenge he was looking for came along a few years ago, when he met Branford Marsalis at a Thelonious Monk Institute competition, and the two had a conversation about doing a record together. The saxophonist is part of a famed New Orleans jazz family that includes his brother, Wynton, a trumpeter, and his father, Ellis, a pianist. Branford performs with a combo that consists of pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Justin Faulkner.
“They’re exceptional players,” Elling said of the quartet. “They are uncompromising on every level, and Branford has a very magnetic personality on and offstage. One of the reasons I moved to New York was so I could test my mettle and find a spot where I could fit in over here, and play to the greatest extent of my ability, and Branford certainly challenges me in that way and the band challenges me that way nightly. It’s a thrill to be with them and try to play to that level. And it’s thrill to hear them respond to the ideas that I have and help to sustain the direction I’m going in. I’m always about new friendships. You don’t want to spend your whole life in your own little constellation. You want to increase and learn and grow, and this is great way to grow.”
All the musicians brought ideas for songs that could be included on album, and its surprisingly diverse lineup ranges from “Blue Velvet” and “I’m a Fool to Want You” to Sting’s “Practical Arrangement” and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Só Tinha de Ser Com Você.” In addition, Elling, who has published two editions of Lyrics: Kurt Elling, contributed lyrics to Marsalis’ “Cassandra’s Song” and Calderazzo’s “The Return (Upward Spiral).” The resulting disc, titled “Upward Spiral,” was recorded during three days in the studio at the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music in New Orleans after Elling and the quartet tried out the songs during a weekend engagement at Snug Harbor.
Marsalis Music released “Upward Spiral” via Okeh Records on June 16, and the album is nominated for a Grammy Award in the category of best jazz vocal album. “It’s always good to have a seat at the table,” Elling said. “It’s always better to be nominated than not. It’s wonderful to be in the mix, but we would have made exactly the same record either way because we believe in one another, and we believe in the music we want to play. If other rewards come along with that, then that’s great. But mostly, the reward is that night after night, we get to spend time with each other and try to play good music.”
Elling spent much of 2016 on the road traveling with the Marsalis quartet in support of “Upward Spiral,” and he will go back on road with his collaborators on Jan. 17 for an extensive tour. It will take them to Europe and across the United States, including a stop in Elling’s hometown. “We’re going to have a great time in Chicago,” he said. “I will have a chance to see a whole lot of people, friends I’ve known for years, and friends I have yet to meet. And we’re going to hit it as hard as we can.”
Now 49, the jazz singer never tires of coming back to Chicago. “It’s always home, that’s for sure,” he said. He tries to make room in his schedule each year for a weekend or two at the Green Mill, a venerable Chicago jazz club where he once performed regularly. “It’s definitively my favorite room of all the rooms I’ve ever gotten to,” he said.
In the midst of his concentrated time recently with Marsalis, Elling managed to carve out time to front a new holiday album titled “On the Beautiful Day: Kurt Elling Sings Christmas,” his first release on the Okeh Records/Sony Music Masterworks label. It offers jazzy arrangements of beloved carols as well as some less familiar musical songs of the season. “Christmas is a deeply felt and cherished tradition,” he said. “As much as I can address that with sincerity and my own personality and my own kind of meditative approach, then I wanted to do that.”
He will return to the recording studio in September for an album of his distinctive takes on what he called “classic latter-day jazz compositions” by the likes of Wayne Shorter. It will be co-produced by Larry Klein, a bassist who has performed with such musicians as Willie Bobo and Freddie Hubbard. But Klein is probably better known as a record producer for a range of artists, including Herbie Hancock and Joni Mitchell.
Elling believes that jazz is thriving artistically, with excellent musicians of all ages at work and non-profit organizations such as the SFJazz Collective in San Francisco and Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York ardently championing the art form. He acknowledges, though, that jazz might be further from the musical mainstream than it ever has been, despite flashes of popularity ever so often. But he doesn’t really care.
“To dedicate yourself to an art form that you believe in and that you find value in and to give it all you can and to give all you can to the audiences who do show up – I think that’s a worthwhile venture, and I feel very fortunate.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.