Somewhere between a duck and sausage gumbo and a delicious cinnamon roll from Mikey’s Donut King in Opelousas Louisiana, I spent 15 delightful minutes talking to Kurt Elling.Listening to Elling sing Herbie Hancock’s “Come Running to Me” from The Gate can be life changing. I don’t know whether he will sing it or not when he performs at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Center at 8 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 24, but I know that anyone who has a heart for jazz had better mosey on down that night or be forever sorry. If there is a king of jazz singing in 2013, it is Kurt Elling.
There are secrets, and there are secrets. South Miami-Dade Cultural Center is a kind of secret, as is Kurt Elling. Both seem to be under the radar, though they shouldn’t be. Jazz lovers know the venue near the Southland Mall that exists only to offer another secret, the most comfortable, emptiest Regal Cinema in the world. I saw the opening weekend’s offering of American Hustle in a massive theater there along with about 10 other people. Cutler Ridge locals prefer pedestrian fare like common folk feast on with Clear Channel, but they know their mall and their SMDCC.
In the same way, jazz buffs know Kurt Elling, all his honors, the critical praise and countless, deserved Grammy nominations. Jazz, being more of a global thing than a domestic one, lives in these shadows. New York knows jazz. So does Elling’s native Chicago. So too Paris, London, Tokyo, Copenhagen. Thankfully, Miami’s WDNA knows Elling and plays him. The mainstream — always unaware. It’s a shame because Kurt Elling is fabulous. But this has all been said ad nauseam. Kurt Elling is coming to Miami.
Elling recently parted ways with longtime collaborator, arranger and pianist Laurence Hobgood. Old friend and bassist Rob Amster passed away during Thanksgiving week. Tribute album, 1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project, like all 10 of Elling’s albums, has been nominated for a Grammy.
He’s like Michael Jordan, Peyton Manning and LeBron to the critics, blowing everyone out as Best Male Vocalist for 14 straight years. In February, he’ll drop the baritone with Tommy Smith and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra in three UK shows. Obviously, Elling is unafraid of any weather report. In fact, he modestly mentioned that he had been working on “my writing,” lyrics for the music of Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, Jaco Pastorius and Herbie Hancock among the many giants Elling has covered. I read Elling’s 2004 lecture from the University of Missouri on spirituality, poetry and jazz where he dropped riveting, profound knowledge, which validates just how he can master this. Just read it!
Elling also talked about his continued work on Passion World, “A thank you or tip of the hat to composers from all over the world.” In this, he speaks in tongues — singing in whatever language the pieces have been written in. He has covered so many things so brilliantly — listen to Earth Wind and Fire’s “After the Love is Gone”.
I mentioned covering Amy Winehouse, hoping he might try “Love is a Losing Game” in a North London accent, but he trumped me by saying that he would like to sample more Stevie Wonder and King Crimson. Kurt Elling singing “I Talk to the Wind” – killer, indeed.
I asked Elling a bit about the places where he has performed. He mentioned spots like those in a future edition of 1,000 Places to See Before You Die — “A synagogue in Victoria B.C., Green Mill in Chicago, Paris, Denmark, Sydney, the Blue Notes in Milan, New York and Tokyo.” Elling said, “These are visually beautiful with beautiful people.”
As for Miami, how about Cuban food? “My sister-in-law plays with the New World Symphony.”
Realizing that there was no chance to invite him to hang with me, I offered my best wishes for good weather. Elling topped me: “Thank you for doing your homework. You have a great attitude.”
You just can’t win with someone so dignified, gracious, and deferential.
Perhaps there is some bitter irony that Elling will sing at SMDCC on a Friday. Just imagining his trip through traffic to the venue itself is too close to the maddening crowds for comfort. Old Cutler is beautiful, but punishing. (Elling could take a lovely break at Bistro Foly near the Deering.) US1 is horrifying and punishing. (One could take a revolting break at City Furniture’s mega complex which dwarfs nearby Rooms To Go.) The best bet is the Turnpike, but I hope that Kurt Elling will take a 90-minute nap in a limo with really dark windows preventing him from seeing the damage all roads south can inflict on a commuter. That way, when he wakes up on Southwest 211th Street, it will be like nothing happened, and he will happily bless us with he who the New York Times’ Nate Chinen called “the standout male jazz vocalist of our time.”
Carl Rachelson is a teacher at Palmer Trinity School and a regular contributor to the Pinecrest Tribune. He may be contacted by addressing email to <email@example.com>.