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Kurt Elling On Piano Jazz

Kurt Elling.
Anna Webber
Courtesy of the artist
Kurt Elling.

Vocalist and poet Kurt Elling brings his rich baritone to Piano Jazz for a set of tunes and spoken improvisations with host Marian McPartland. As a child, Elling sang regularly in church and discovered jazz while studying at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He began sitting in at the city's jazz clubs, where his unique ability to improvise vocally led him in a new career direction. Elling has since worked with a variety of artists, including John Hendricks, Billy Corgan, David Amram, Buddy Guy, Charlie Hunter and Oscar Brown Jr. And he won a Grammy for Best Vocal Jazz Album earlier this year.

He kicks the session off with "Close Your Eyes," accompanied by McPartland and bassist Rob Amster. Elling has a tremendous command over the instrumentation of his voice, with swinging phrasing of the lyric and a burning scat solo in "Close Your Eyes," and he follows it by stretching out over the slow ballad "Embraceable You."

"Well, I must say, I've never heard it done like that," McPartland says. "You're even slower than Shirley Horn, but it works."

"That's the thing: There are so many art songs in jazz," Elling says. "It's a much more rich experience for the singer than people think. You might like a song and sing it around the house, but they're really very difficult songs."

Elling also professes a deep respect for and kinship with horn players.

"They have that organic gesture of breathing that comes out in the lines they play," he says. "You can only play so long before you have to take a breath."

Specifically, he leans toward lyric horn players like Paul Desmond, Dave Brubeck's longtime alto saxophonist. Elling sings a vocalese "Those Clouds Are Heavy, Ya Dig," based on Desmond's own tune "Audrey," which was written in tribute to Audrey Hepburn. Elling takes his poet's pen to the tune and draws from his divinity studies in composing an existentialist fable.

McPartland is a seasoned collaborator herself, and she follows with "Days of Our Love," a tune she wrote — and for which Peggy Lee provided a lyric. And the session takes a new direction as Elling reads a selection of poems by free-jazz icon Ornette Coleman, with improvised accompaniment by McPartland. The combination of jazz and spoken word is probably most widely known through Jack Kerouac's readings set to a bop soundtrack. Indeed, Elling has arranged a stage version of readings of Beat poetry at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre. But Coleman's poetry is more reflective than the staccato, in-the-moment fever of Kerouac, and Elling phrases the words with measured recitation.

"That's something I've never done before," McPartland says. "It's interesting to play off that."

Elling follows with a soulful take on "You Don't Know What Love Is," which demands attention, and the session closes with a swinging and scatting version of the aptly titled "The Masquerade Is Over."

Originally recorded Jan. 14, 2002. Originally broadcast June 25, 2002.

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Grant Jackson