Carolina Performing Arts Blog

On Kurt Elling

// Mar 12,2013

| by Lenora Helm |

What is it about Kurt Elling that can make you fall in love with his voice and his music? He elicits something beyond infatuation with the sound of his voice or the subtle beauty in his interpretation of a timeless lyric. Many listeners have said he has the gift of bringing a song alive again for them, such that once he sings it, you have rediscovered a song you may have forgotten. Kurt Elling has a gift that few artists possess and long to capture – the ability to cause you to examine your own humanity. I love the way he may offer the listener a mashup of Rumi and Duke Ellington, or a tender reading of an Earth, Wind and Fire favorite and then deliver a blistering vocalese on a John Coltrane solo. Two things will happen with each experience of Kurt Elling; he will surprise you, and he will make you think about the way you live your life.

One young student I worked with at a vocal jazz workshop identified Elling as a role model, citing him as his “biggest influence.” When I asked if he knew whom Kurt Elling credited as his biggest influence, the student replied he did not. His response made me smile, not because it was an example of that student’s naiveté but because it demonstrated what Kurt Elling is for many. Ranging from critical accolades by JazzTimes Magazine as “the thinking man’s vocalist,” and The New York Times declaring, “Elling is the standout male vocalist of our time,” Kurt Elling has marked a territory. From critics’ polls to loyal fans, Elling is the male vocalist for our present generation of jazz listeners. And, as I learned that day – many aspiring jazz vocalists are quite territorial about him – he is “their biggest influence, period!”

Elling does not pander to his audience – you won’t hear any unnecessary “patter” and dialogue smattered with the undertones of ego and selfabsorption. He is thoughtful and intentional, not only in his repertoire, but also in the choices he makes in the instrumentalists in his band. His longtime bandmate and collaborator on piano, Laurence Hobgood, has contributed to the success of Elling’s recordings with powerful (and Grammy-nominated) arrangements, and his remaining rhythm section players are amongst the best on the scene today. Allow Elling’s luscious four-octave baritone voice to envelope you, and nestle into an evening of music, enlightenment and fun.


Lenora Zenzalai Helm is a former U.S. Jazz Ambassador and teaches vocal jazz on the music faculty at N.C. Central University. She will perform with the Art of Cool Project on April 5 at Flanders Gallery in Raleigh.


This essay is part of a series of reflections included in our program books, written by members of the University and surrounding community. To view the program book, click here.