January 2008

Kurt Elling – Montreux Vocal Competition Master Class
at the 35th Annual IAJE (International Association for Jazz Education) Conference
January 11, 2008 Imperial Ballroom, Royal York Hotel Toronto
Kurt Elling Chats Up the New Generation
by Tova G. Kardonne with photo by Roger Humbert
As part of the IAJE conference in Toronto this January, Kurt Elling led a vocal master class in the Ballroom of the Royal York Hotel for the winners of the Montreux Jazz Competition. One of the foremost Jazz musicians around, Elling was sure to know something I don’t, and as a vocalist and consummate performer, he was equally sure to be good at saying it. When the maestros are this thick on the ground, follow the communicator, I say. It’s all too possible at these Assemblies of Greats to end up blown away and utterly bewildered.
The first singer, Laura Brunner, sang an original ballad of melancholy lyric. The chord progression was something of a treat, and the melody was probably great, too, but not quite clear enough amid the perambulations of embellishments. As Elling pointed out, it’s hard to give a critique when the pitch and tech are as solid as hers were, so he turned to the performative aspect of singing. “This,” he announced, “is the most important gesture in Jazz singing,” and he proceeds to open his arms in a giant hug of welcome and invitation. “Offer your heart,” and indeed, we are all momentarily swept into an illusion of bounteous giving that disappears with a weird suddenness when his arms drop. Of course, we all have to laugh, not sure if it’s cheesy to admit how powerful that was, or just a testament to his performer’s charms. Music, he explains, is gestural. Every sound has its movement, even a single note, if it’s well sung. Open your eyes when you sing, he advised, open your heart, tell the story with your body, and be the ambassador of Jazz that a singer can be.
Kurt Elling
The second singer was all about the story-telling. Jennifer Ledesna sang “Since I Fell For You” in a Dinah Washington smoky alto that pushed intensity to the edge. After we’d all toweled off and had a cigarette, Elling came in and tried, with a needling question here and there, to find out where, in that performance, the uniqueness of Jennifer lay. There’s a lot of work to be had in the field of sounding like someone else, he said, but if you want to be an artist, do your own thing. To that end, he got Jennifer to improvise a chorus or two, which she did at top speed and, once again, at high intensity. It was the kind of performance that shows a level of familiarity with the idiom, a level of erudition, an interest in doing the thing well, and it served beautifully as a segue to a lecture about thinking like a composer in one’s improvising. To think like a composer, Elling explained, one must think not only about notes but also about space. About the shape of what one is constructing. About themes and variations. But do it fast. And if you can’t do it fast, write down what you can do, and improve it at the piano, slowly, with full composer's process. Then sing it fast.

A little anecdote about scat singers. Elling likened some scat singers to his two year old daughter when she writes her name. “The crayon is definitely making contact with the paper,” he says, holding up an imaginary paper for us to appreciate, “There’s colour all over the place — she’s definitely writing something. But,” he asks, amid the uncomfortable giggling of an audience full of singers who recognize themselves, “did you write your name?”

It seems Elling’s got a thing about authenticity. I don’t think he used that word exactly, but the theme came up in various ways. Speaking, as he seemed to be, primarily to students, he stressed the importance of letting oneself ripen into artistic maturity, a process that seems frustratingly slow, at times, to even the prodigious among us. He spoke of a singer’s unique contact with an audience and the importance of forging a connection. From the context of another situation entirely, Elling urged students to surprise themselves into finding their own sound, to not be content with doing someone else’s thing, even really well. It all came back to being present in the moment of artistic creation, not grasping at past formulae or at one’s own future extra-hipness. “What,” Elling thunderingly demands, “are you saying — NOW?”

We welcome your comments and feedback
Tova G. Kardonne
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Roger Humbert
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The Live Music Report

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