An adept singer with a lithe, highly resonant baritone voice and four-octave range, Kurt Elling has garnered abundant critical praise and numerous accolades for his distinctive brand of vocal jazz. Given the depth and broad vision of his recordings and performance style, Elling is in a league of his own. Planning a career in the academic world, he discovered jazz and took to it naturally. Deeply influenced by singer and poet Mark Murphy, Elling began to develop his idiosyncratic scat style in the smaller clubs of Chicago (primarily at the Green Mill, sharing the stage with legends Von Freeman and Ed Peterson) and then throughout the Midwest. An Elling show can contain ranting beat poetry, dramatic and poignant readings of Rilke, and hard-swinging scat.
After sending a demo to Blue Note, Elling signed to the label and issued Close Your Eyes in 1995. He began to get attention from the jazz press, not only for his talent and original style, but also for his choice in sidemen, who included Laurence Hobgood and Paul Wertico for a time. His ultra-hip persona prevailed on 1996's Messenger, which was tougher and leaner than its predecessor, and along with hard touring and a taste for the theatrical and outrageous, Elling won over not only critics but jazz audiences from coast to coast. Elling was married that same year and chose, depending on your point of view, either to revise his hipster image or broaden his traditional base with a collection of standard ballads and love songs entitled This Time It's Love. The album won numerous awards in magazines and was nominated for a Grammy.
Endless touring and guest appearances resulted in Blue Note issuing 2000's Live in Chicago (from three sets at the Green Mill) and the following year's Flirting with Twilight, his most ambitious and satisfying recording -- he opened the disc by singing a Charlie Haden bass solo. Man in the Air and Nightmoves followed in 2003 and 2007, respectively. In 2009, as part of Lincoln Center's American Songbook concert series, Elling released the live album Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman. Elling guested on Hobgood's 2010 and 2011 offerings When the Heart Dances and Left to My Own Devices, respectively.
He also re-emerged with his own album, The Gate, in 2011. The set was produced by Grammy winner Don Was. Easily his most provocative offering, it featured a few modern jazz standards juxtaposed against a slew of pop, rock, and soul tunes that were radically rearranged and performed by an all-star band that included Hobgood, John Pattitucci, and Bob Mintzer, to mention a few. The following year, Elling issued 1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project, which paid homage to the classic American pop music that emanated from the iconic Brill Building during the '50s and '60s.
The singer's 11th studio album, 2015's Passion World, found him exploring compositions and musical styles from around the globe. In June of 2016, Elling paired with saxophonist Branford Marsalis for the sophisticated quartet date Upward Spiral. That October, he returned with The Beautiful Day: Kurt Elling Sings Christmas, his first ever holiday-themed collection. In 2018, he again collaborated with Marsalis on The Questions, covering songs by a varied group of composers, including Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, and Leonard Bernstein. Joining them were pianist Joey Calderazzo, trumpeter Marquis Hill, drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts, and others. ~ Thom Jurek