Two years ago, jazz singer Kurt Elling released The Beautiful Day: Kurt Elling Sings Christmas. As he’s a vocalist who likes to have his way with a song to the point of redesigning it, that CD was a bit of a surprise. But for anyone familiar with Elling’s background, it made perfect sense.
The son of a Lutheran church band director, Kurt sang in choirs, and he came this close to earning a doctor of divinity degree. Anyone hoping for a musical religious tract, though, was disappointed. Elling took well-chosen Christmas songs as points of departures for his resonant baritone—altering melody, phrasing and rhythm in the moment. The slower tempos were virtual playgrounds, where liberties were taken, but which also allowed for close listener scrutiny.
That’s precisely where Elling wants to take his audience. “I feel that the album is fairly pensive regarding the holidays,” says Elling, taking a break in the middle of a tour. “It’s more meaningful to me to take a solitary walk than pop a champagne cork. And that reflects how I approach the music. I think it’s important to take some time and seriously consider the season, and all that goes with it. There’s so much discovery in the songs we do onstage—for us as much as the listeners—that I want to bring them into our process.”
Recording a holiday-themed album is almost expected of any artist with hopes of career longevity, but Elling had no great expectations for the project. “When we put the record out,” he contends, “we didn’t know that people would take to it so well and that our December concerts would become a tradition.” Elling and his trio (pianist and Hammond B3 organist Stu Mindeman, guitarist John McLean, bassist Clark Sommers and drummer Adonis Rose) bring “The Beautiful Day” to Orange County’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Saturday, December 15.
“I knew I didn’t want to make a religious album,” says Elling. “I want everyone to know they’re welcome at our shows. That’s as overt a political message as I’ve ever done.” He’s mindful of the dissension in the country: “I have empathy with what people are feeling; it’s a very fraught time right now. But we can come together in the spirit of the season. As always, I want people to forget the day-to-day when they come to hear us.
“I want them to be moved, to be thrilled, to marvel, and get emotional over these songs. We put as much emotion as we can into the songs, and we want people to listen and consider them deeply so they’ll make new memories for them.”
For the last 20 years or so, we’ve been living through what could rightfully be called the Era of the Female Jazz Singer. Women dominate vocal jazz, led by the bankable names like Diana Krall, Dianne Reeves, Karrin Allyson, Cecile McLorin Salvant, Norah Jones, and the legions working in their shadows. The market seems to have not yet found a saturation point for women singing jazz and/or standards. Now that Mark Murphy is gone, Kurt Elling is the only male jazz singer who can work anywhere in the country. A perennial poll winner, Elling humbly acknowledges his good standing: “I’ve been blessed, to be sure.”
Elling also steered clear of office party songs. “I didn’t want to sing Christmas songs in a ring-a-ding manner,” he flatly states. “Art is supposed to touch us in a meaningful way. But I definitely want a joyful outcome.”
Kirk Silsbee publishes promiscuously on rock, jazz and the visual arts. He has been an arts·meme contributor for five years.
Kurt Elling, The Beautiful Day | Samueli Theater, Segerstrom Center for the Arts | Sat, December 15, 7 and 9 pm