The Jazz Cruise has been fortunate to present Kurt Elling on almost every sailing for the past decade. Blessed with an unmistakable voice, impeccable stage presence and the ability to convey true emotion and pathos, Kurt’s shows grab the attention of the audience at the first note and do not let go until the set is over, which seems like just moments. On stage, Kurt has both a rapier and a self-effacing wit and charm which, when working together, can be both disarming and very entertaining.
Kurt is the epitome of hip and cool, but he is never too much for the room. His ability to engage and adore his audience may be his finest attribute. However, when I think of Kurt these days, it is the depth and meaning of his recent compositions that draw me into his world. His work is heartfelt, his commitment to causes is sincere. His time at the University of Chicago Divinity School reflects his spiritual nature that has become an essential part of his aura.
Kurt has won 2 Grammy Awards, been nominated 14 times, and has won 12 Jazz Journalists Awards for “Male Vocalist of the Year” in addition to 14 years as #1 male vocalist on the DownBeat Critics and Readers’ Polls. Kurt is a true jazz star.
Recently, Michael Lazaroff, Executive Director of The Jazz Cruise, had an opportunity to pose some questions to Kurt.
Lazaroff: Though we have written and spoken, it has been more than a year since I have seen you in person. How are you doing amidst the pandemic?
Elling: My family and I are exceedingly fortunate. We have all remained Covid-free throughout the pandemic. We have food on the table and a roof over our heads. It has been very difficult for me to have so few outlets for performance – or even live interaction with other musicians. But I have been writing and occasionally recording. My bride, Jennifer, has been exemplary and inspiring in every way in terms of remaining cheerful, organized and forward-thinking, especially when I have faltered.
Lazaroff: Recently, you and your family moved back to Chicago. How is that going?
Elling: It has been a challenge. We moved last summer, in the middle of all kinds of lockdowns. We had been planning on moving home for a while in order to be closer to extended family, and just then our daughter, Luiza, was admitted into a great arts high school here in town. So naturally we wanted to support her growth and her desires. We all miss NYC terribly, and I will admit it was a pretty big adjustment for us all. But, here we are.
Lazaroff: You have enjoyed, through hard work and talent, a very successful career earning accolades and awards all over the world. If you had to point to the most satisfying moment in your professional career, what would that be?
Elling: I was just thinking of the several, many-times-older artists whose work I have admired who have been supportive of my work. Phil Woods came out to a set or two on the cruise some years ago, and I still treasure a candid photograph somebody gave me of the two of us meeting. The kindness in Phil’s eyes as we are speaking is vibrant. I recall a night when Moody sat backstage and listened to my set. I dedicated our performance of a lyric I had written to a Dexter Gordon solo to him and then also sang Moody’s Mood. He embraced me afterwards and shared very generous thoughts. I was able to play some music with Wayne Shorter a handful of times. That was massively inspiring. Remembering the whole recording process and tour with Branford and his band bring back very important and emotional memories. The several times I met with and worked with Brubeck were a dream. And, of course, my many times with Jon Hendricks, Mark Murphy and Sheila Jordan are times I hold dearest.
Lazaroff: One of the true blessings of producing The Jazz Cruise is the connection that I have been able to make with performers like you. I learn from you guys every time we sail and I am in awe of the ease by which you seem to make music and perform with others. I know that there is more, a lot more, than meets the eye here. In creating a set for The Jazz Cruise, what elements go into your selections?
Elling: I try not to repeat charts over the course of the week, and I try to give each set its own personality and vibe. It is important to me that some guests try to come to each set and I want to honor that. At the same time, there are always some guests who are hearing me for the first time ever. That means I need to offer a friendly hand to shake, so to speak, and not get too weird too fast. Additionally, I want to have some spots where we can host musical guests in ways that feature them in the strongest way. Putting sets together for the cruise is a weeklong puzzle that requires the most from my ensemble. And that’s what we intend to provide.
Lazaroff: Being able to share a light moment, even one where we poke fun at each other, is a highlight of the cruise for me. We have a lot of funny folks among our Musicians, but you are clearly in the Top 5. Have you always been able to laugh and stay grounded?
Elling: I am very gratified if that is the impression I give. The cruise is an opportunity for me to inhabit a social and creative role I cherish: namely, “The Jazz Singer.” Those who have come before me (the aforementioned, and also Joe Williams, et al) and my confreres (like John Pizzarelli) set a standard of bon vivacity, mother wit and storytelling that I intend to try to live up to. Of course, my bride knows just how much trouble I can be (oy vey!). Thankfully, after almost 25 years, she continues to forgive me!
Lazaroff: Let’s say that you are on a deserted island and will be there for two weeks before being rescued. You have a music playing device, so you are covered, but you can only listen to three performers or performing groups for the entire time. Who would they be?
Elling: Deserted island for 2 weeks? Ok: Complete Wayne Shorter (including Weather Report), Complete Dexter Gordon, Complete Basie / Sinatra.
Lazaroff: There are a lot of folks on The Jazz Cruise who sail with us specifically to hear you? What is your secret to engaging and capturing a crowd?
Elling: If that is true, then I am doubly grateful for that support and encouragement. The faithfulness of fans and friends is something I cherish and value dearly. I don’t know if there is a “secret” to engagement. I do know that singers have a leg up when it comes to connecting with audiences. We have lyrics to sing and stories to tell in singer-specific ways. Also, I try to sing in tune!
Lazaroff: Finally, is there any type of performance, fellow musicians or other special event that you would like to share on The Jazz Cruise ’22? Whatever you want, we will do.
Elling: I’d LOVE to do a trio set with Bill Charlap and Houston Person. I’d LOVE to do a number or two (or three) with whatever units Jeff Hamilton and John Clayton bring around. And I’d LOVE to HEAR Sheila Jordan and Ann Hampton Callaway play music and improvise lyrics together!