Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Kurt Elling talks about “Dedicated to You”

When: February 19, 2009 • Where: KFAI RadioWho: Janis Lane-Ewart, “Collective Eye” host; yours truly; Kurt Elling on the phone from NYC

Today (June 23) is the day Kurt Elling fans have been waiting for: the release of his latest CD on Concord, Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman. Recorded in January 2009 in the Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center, it features saxophonist Ernie Watts, the Laurence Hobgood Trio, and the ETHEL String Quartet.

Earlier this year, on February 19, the night before the “Dedicated to You” tour came to the Ted Mann Theater in Minneapolis as part of the Northrop Jazz Season, Janis Lane-Ewart and I did a live on-air interview with Elling for KFAI Radio. In celebration of the CD release, here’s the transcript, complete and unedited.

KFAI: Mr. Elling, are you there?

Kurt Elling: I sure am. How are you guys doing tonight?

KFAI: We’re fabulous and happy to have you join the Twin Cities community just a few…22 hours before you are arriving in town to share with us the John Coltrane/Johnny Hartman concert.

KE: Mmm-hmm.

KFAI: Looking forward to that—I will mention that I saw it in Monterey last September; I think that was the second time you performed it. Enjoyed it very much and looking forward to seeing it again.

KE: Oh, great. We’ve got some new arrangements that we weren’t able to put into that show. And we’ve recorded it now.

KFAI: I heard about that. At the Allen Room?

KE: Mmm-hmm.

KFAI: Looking forward to hearing that. Janis and I were wondering, and we thought our listeners might be interested to know, what drew you to this project in the first place?

KE: This came about initially at the behest of the Chicago Jazz Festival, which gave me a call about three years ago now inviting me to do something with the Johnny Hartman/John Coltrane material as an opening act for Josh Redman, who was going to be doing the Africa/Brass [a 1961 album by Coltrane]. They wanted to do something that was two sides of John Coltrane.

And, you know, whenever I get a request like that, I’m always interested to entertain it, but I always take it with the proviso that I’m not very interested in the simple reiteration of great music, or even a classic record like this. That doesn’t seem very interesting to me, it doesn’t seem very interesting to the audience… if you want to hear that specific thing, wouldn’t you just want to hear Johnny Hartman do it?

So I was working with a good friend from Chicago named Jim Gailloreto at that time on arrangements for his own recording for his own group featuring saxophone, voice, string quartet, and bass, and it was such an interesting sound that I hadn’t really considered before that I immediately said, well, let’s get some string quartet on this, because it updates the flavor, or it changes it around, or it puts it into a new space in such a way that it maintains the, what, the sort of ballad-neighborhood intensity. So that’s how it started.

We had Ari Brown, a really wonderful tenor player out of Chicago, on that initial thing, and we’ve had Bob Mintzer play it with us a number of times in different configurations, Carnegie Hall and such, and then, as you mentioned, we recorded it just the other week at Lincoln Center with Ernie Watts, who will be with us in Minneapolis this time. It’s just gonna be thrilling.

KFAI: He was with you in Monterey as well.

KE: Mmm-hmm.

KFAI: So the string quartet was a really interesting idea. Did you know the ETHEL—you’re using the ETHEL string quartet in your performances and I assume the recording as well—was there a particular reason you went with them?

KE: Well, you know, they have a musical flexibility that is purposeful. You think string quartet, you think four people who are very, very serious, man, who are going to be doing Beethoven’s such-and-such or other, and they can certainly blow like that, but they’re also very interested and they spend a lot of their time doing new music with some very hip people, big pop stars and new music people and Charles Ives things and just crazy stuff, and they can swing, too.

So their musical approach seemed to be to be the right kind of flexibility, and then when we got together and actually tried to play some of the stuff, they sounded great, and they’re wonderful people to work with, too, so it all falls together.

KFAI: They were at the Southern theater in Minneapolis not too long, ago, Janis; do you remember that?

KE: Oh!

KFAI: I do. And I also, having come from Chicago and served on the board of the Jazz Institute and on the programming committee as well, that makes a variety of decisions about programming for the festival, and having heard you describe the musicians that you have performed with on this particular project, I’m also curious about what this particular work means to you at this point in time. It was originally presented to you three years ago, and now three years hence, when we are in a different historical moment, you have decided to not only record the work but are also touring with it. Is there some connection that’s happening for you now in terms of this period of time?

KE: I don’t know if there’s anything as deep as all that specifically happening as much as there is an opportunity for me in between studio recordings…. I had never really intended to record this material, this is more of a special project for me, and people who have followed me in the past know that when I do a special project, it really usually only lasts a couple of nights or a month, or a small tour later or what have you, and then it goes the way of all things, but in this case—

This has been kind of a big deal. You’re doing this through April, correct?

Yeah, it’s definitely blossomed of its own accord. And, I mean, you know, it’s my thing, if any number of my other special projects would have had lives as extensive as this, including some of the theatrical things, the things that I’ve done with the Steppenwolf Theatre, the things that I’ve done with dancers and what not, if any of those had come across with the kind of velocity that we seem to be getting with this, I would have been happy about that, too.

You try your hardest to make interesting, beautiful, creative things, and for them to be seen by the broadest number of people. In this case, it seems like people really like to hear it, and thanks to people—you mentioned Monterey before, and a number of different places that just really like the concept, and then when they hear the music they really want to support it, who am I to say no to that?

KFAI: You mentioned that you had some new arrangements for us this time, and I was wondering how else has this project evolved for you since you started performing it?

KE: Well, you know, I think we’ve got a pretty good set list together, for one thing [laughs]. We’ve all grown accustomed to each other, it’s been…. I’ll tell you, one of the really significant ways, because of the number of dates we’ve done, and now the recording, we’ve had the opportunity to get to know Ernie Watts a lot better than we would have had we only done the show a couple of times, and the level of musicianship, and the velocity of his music, and the energy that’s coming out of him, and he’s sharing with us and with the audience, is just a wonderful and overpowering thing. I really can’t say enough about what a pleasure it is, and how inspiring it is, to have him with us every night.

KFAI: In the work that you’re doing now, Mr. Elling, it’s evolved over time, and I know, having come from Chicago, that a lot of your work is in some regards in development through the Wednesday night sessions that you do or have done at the Green Mill. Have you found a similar home for your new development or further development while you’re now in New York?

KE: I haven’t really, but then I haven’t really had that much time to actually be home. We’re on the road so much, we were just counting up the nights from last year, and it was about 180 nights on the road doing dates, so by the time you get to that number of dates and you come home, you’ve done a lot of developing [laughs]. You’re ready to sit down on a Wednesday night and act like a normal person.

KFAI: I want to mention for people who are interested in knowing where you’re touring, and reading your lyrics, and learning about your band, that you have a really excellent, very friendly, accessible, information-packed website at KurtElling.com and I would suggest that people go there.

KE: Yeah. Thank you.

KFAI: We know that you are on Eastern coast time and so we don’t want to keep you up knowing that you’re traveling tomorrow. I do want to ask you if there’s anything else that we’ve not touched upon that you’d like to share with our listeners here in the Twin Cities.

KE: Well, you know, every time I come back to the Twin Cities, it’s a very, very special occasion for me. I have so many wonderful friends and so many memories.

I’m a graduate of Gustavus Adolphus [a college in St. Peter, MN] and I really have a deep, deep love and kinship with Minnesota and with that part of the world. Some of my most wonderful memories, developing, not just as a person but as a musician, at Gustavus and the number of nights we got to sing together—that kind of thing. It’s really a beautiful thing.

I’m so, so pleased to be able to come home again and present such a pretty thing to you. I really hope people will come out and brave that which must be braved. [Elling's reference is to winter in Minnesota.]

KFAI: It’s not so bad at the moment.

KE: We’ll definitely play as well as we can for you.

KFAI: We look forward to hearing you tomorrow night, and tonight’s program will continue with the music you have shared with listeners on various recordings and thjat also provide our listeners with a continuation of the celebration of African-American history here on KFAI.

KE: Beautiful.

KFAI: Thank you very much. We look forward to welcoming you back tomorrow.

KE: Marvelous. Thanks so much.

KFAI: See you then. You’re welcome. Travel safely.

P.S. The set list for the rest of the program included music by Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane, and recordings by Elling of songs by African-American composers or musicians. (This show aired during African-American History Month.) We ended with Elling’s “Tanganyika Dance” from Bob Belden’s Shades of Blue, a gem from 1994 based on McCoy Tyner’s “Man from Tanganyika” (Tender Moments, 1967) for which Elling wrote lyrics. Shades of Blue came out the year before Elling released his first CD as leader, Close Your Eyes (1995).

At last week’s Jazz Awards in New York, Elling was named Male Vocalist of the Year.

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