by Lyndon Pike
Currently touring Australia are Chicago based jazz vocalist Kurt Elling and prodigious musician and producer Charlie Hunter. Elling, a performer whose trailblazing style combines vocalese, reinterpretations of classic standards and stunning experimentation, has earned him 2 Grammy Awards and the moniker of “the standout male vocalist of our time” from the New York Times. Hunter’s multi genre projects, spanning jazz, hip hop, acid jazz and funk across 17 studio albums and countless collaborations make him one of the world’s most respected masters of groove, with a skill for playing bass, lead and rhythm almost simultaneously on his custom 6 and 7 stringed guitars. I caught up with Kurt and Charlie during the Melbourne leg of their tour, showcasing songs from their ongoing Superblue project, which arrives in Sydney on Wednesday August 30th at City Recital Hall.
Could you share a memory of a live performance mishap leading to an innovative and memorable musical moment?
Charlie: I can’t think of anything specific. I mean, every night you’re playing, there are tons of those mistakes, right? And you use that as an emphasis to get better. With music, I think we all would love to think of everything – an amazing “aha” moment – but it just doesn’t really work like that. The vast majority of the time, it’s just like, okay, what do I suck at and why? And how many times did I suck at that tonight, and how do I get better at that? I get to play with these great musicians, particularly great drummers, and I’m like, how did I make their lives hard tonight? And then you figure out a way to not make their lives as hard, you know?
How do you strike a balance between improvisation and structure in your performances, particularly when reinterpreting a jazz standard?
Charlie: That’s a great question. And I’ll tell you, it’s more of a continuum, because when I’m playing with somebody like Bobby Previte, who is a master improviser, and I mean, a master of everything – we’ll play completely free where we don’t say anything about anything, and we just listen and we create. And you never know what that’s going to be. It’s about listening and creating, having a lot of vocabulary you can pull from, and being able to do that. And then you can have people like Branford Marsalis, who will improvise real jazz over those songs, and it’s just so powerful. Then you have what I’m doing with Kurt at the moment, where we’ll be improvising, we’ll just be grooving behind him. And the job is very different. You’ll have some improvisation, but the landscape is very open, and it’s all about the groove and the time and the feel. So you can interject little things that move the music ahead a little bit, but they’re subtext. They’re small things, but if you add these little things here and there, it brings a certain kind of a little spice to the groove!
You’ve received 10 Grammy nominations and awarded 2. How has receiving those accolades affected your career?
Kurt: It pushed open doors and allowed you opportunities that you may not have previously had as far as connections and working with certain people. I don’t know that you can ever point to a specific connection that gets made, but it certainly helps in a cumulative sense for visibility and for audience members who might not buy a ticket otherwise to feel that they can bank on their wallet. They don’t have to worry about their sense of taste because it’s been bonafide or verified by more powerful people. It’s certainly more fun to win than not, and it’s certainly helpful over the course of a career to be recognized and to be taken up. That having been said, it’s still a slog and as much as we enjoy the road, we put up with a lot so that we can do this and that’s where you got to have your sense of humor intact and you’ve got to have the brotherhood functional and hit it as hard as you can when the downbeat comes.
Has there been a memorable collaboration either in a live or studio setting where a fellow musician introduced you to a completely new technique or concept that has stayed with you?
Charlie: Not really, because I just grew up in this thing, and it’s just all around you. There are great people you see, and you want to learn what they do, but it’s always the wrong process. Like they say in painting, every layer is a player. You have to learn all of these different things – that’s what this whole game is about. You’re playing with people – to me, that’s the most exciting part. It’s just learning all of these things. And it might be a little technical thing, or it might be a conceptual thing that changes your whole way of thinking about stuff. The idea is that you’re plugged into that moment of learning, and you’re trying to make it a little better and a little more expansive every day.
Which type of audience do you enjoy performing for the most?
Kurt: The people who want to hear it the most. Whoever is out there who wants to respond. Whoever is out there who is hungry for it, who wants to have fun and do it.
Are there any musical genres you are yet to explore that you’ve thought, one day I’d like to dip into that?
Charlie: The music that I think probably most resonates with me is a lot of music that my mom listened to when I was a kid – 1920s blues stuff. Everything from Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, to Son House. I particularly enjoy Blind Blake, who is probably to me one of the best technical guitar players that ever lived, and that was 100 years ago. I’ve spent the last year on a mission to learn how he did what he did, because people still don’t know how he did it. Here was a man who lived 100 years ago that figured some stuff out that is still nearly impossible to play. I want to be of use in that department and really learn that style. So if there’s any style that I really spent a lot of time on, it would be that kind of style from that period.
I recently read a quote from Herbie Hancock. When asked why jazz was not part of the pop scene anymore, he said, “because music doesn’t matter anymore, people don’t care anymore about the music itself. They care about who makes the music.”
With that in mind, what are your insights on where jazz is currently at?
Kurt: That’s a big question, the context is just so incredibly huge. Regular people are inundated with information all the time on every level, the internet is constantly bombarding them with their phones are around all the time – it’s an information overload. There’s a whole lot of people who are coming out of music schools who can play incredible things. And some of them are going to make music that is also appealing to some of the people. Jazz has changed over the years from being very popular dance music, to being very cerebral, highly trained music of virtuoso improvisers, and that takes a lot of focus and a lot of concentration. And it means that the player who’s going to play that kind of thing is going to be captivated by the possibilities that they can hear and play.
Jazz tends to be complicated. When people are bombarded with so much information; they need something they can get to, and they need something that addresses the way that they feel right now. They want to deal in feelings. They don’t want to deal in math. They don’t want to deal in complications. They don’t want to deal with the brooding intensity of the individualist, man. They want to have fun, and they want to hear something that means something and they want to go. That seems to me to be a reality.
Has there been a particular performance space that stands out as particularly unique or unexpected and has left a strong impression on you?
Charlie: This is a question which comes up a lot. Yeah. But it’s always different. It always depends on the audience. You’re always going to try to get within the 90th percentile of your playing and performance, no matter where you play at, some places make it a little easier.
Kurt: For the most part, you could play the same place again and again and again. It’s different every time. So it’s really hard to say. Every audience, every night, has its own personality. It’s affected by the news of the day, the weather, what day of the week it is. You just never know. Sometimes you walk into a joint and you say, oh man, we’re going to die in here. And then it’s the most thrilling night of the month, And sometimes you’re like, all right, this place is going to kill, and for whatever reason, people are sort of mid-temperature.
As an artist yourself, if your singing style could be likened to a famous painting, which artists’ work would you say it resembles, and why?
Kurt: There are artists whose paintings I wish my stuff sounded like that’s virtuosic way beyond my level, and has techniques and colors in every direction. I mean, it certainly wouldn’t be “Sunday In The Park With George” (A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat). I don’t have time for that kind of Pointillist routine. I don’t not have the patience for that kind of stuff. My friend, Wesley Kimmler, he’s a great, great Chicago artist. And he’s done things that I think are very beautiful and challenging and they’re weird. So let’s say Wesley Kimmler.
Kurt, I read that you have a keen interest in boxing, and I was wondering if the discipline and strategy of boxing intersect with your interpretation of jazz?
Kurt: Are you talking to me?
Yes. Is that not true?
Kurt: That might have been an offhand comment. I mean, it’s beautiful in its way, but I’m not an authority or anything.
I’ll rephrase the question. Is there any practice, sporting, artistic, or otherwise that you could relate to in both its discipline but also in breaking the rules when it comes to performing jazz?
Kurt: Man, as far as sports are concerned, sports are competitive against other people. While jazz music specifically has certainly had a heavily competitive component throughout its generations, I guess I don’t naturally think of it that way as a primary aspect of it. If I’m competing against anybody, I’m competing against myself and my own limitations. So maybe it’s more like some of these extreme long-distance runners that just go out there and run across the desert for no good reason and just see how far they can go, and maybe try and beat that.
What can audiences expect when we see you here in Sydney?
Kurt: Well, we’re gonna have a good time. We’re gonna have a lot of danceable music and we’re gonna have some laughs, and we got a hot band, and people should just bring their boogie shoes.
Charlie: Right on! And we have horns coming for that gig too, which adds a little extra smack on it.
Grab your tickets now for a night of unforgettable jazz at Sydney Recital Hall on Wednesday 30 August and get ready to have your mind blown by the unstoppable duo of Kurt Elling and Charlie Hunter.