Jazz singer Kurt Elling is 'truly a musical phenomenon'

Highly regarded as a jazz singer, composer and lyricist, Kurt Elling takes the spotlight for the next entry in the Bates College Concert Series at 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 15, in the Olin Arts Center Concert Hall, 75 Russell St.

Elling performs at Bates with his longtime collaborators, the Laurence Hobgood Trio. Admission is $8 for the general public and $5 for students and seniors. For more information, please call 207-786-6135.

Boasting a Grammy nomination for each of his six recordings on the Blue Note label, Elling is a master of vocalese — the jazz art of setting texts to recorded instrumental solos. Adapting texts by such writers as Rilke, Proust and Kerouac to solos from Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane and others, Elling has breathed new life into this challenging form.

Since 1995, Elling has earned international acclaim as a composer, lyricist and director. A writer for the British newspaper The Guardian called Elling “an omnicompetent artist of almost ruthless efficiency . . . (He) is truly a musical phenomenon.”

Elling combined Beat poetry and music on stage to celebrate the life of Allen Ginsberg, and honored the city of Chicago with a piece featuring blues singer Buddy Guy, writer Studs Terkel and a 90-voice gospel choir.

But first and foremost, he sings. “In an era when bona fide young jazz singers are in perilously short supply,” The Chicago Tribune wrote in 2001, “. . . Elling seems hell-bent on [redefining] what jazz singing is all about.”

In the category of “Best Male Singer,” Elling has won the Down Beat and JazzTimes critics’ polls three years running, the most recent Down Beat readers’ poll, two Jazz Journalists Awards and the Prix Billie Holiday from the Academie du Jazz, Paris. For his latest album, “Man In The Air” (July 2003), the 35-year-old Chicagoan created original lyrics for compositions by such giants as saxophonist Coltrane, pianist Herbie Hancock, guitarist Pat Metheny and others.

For years Elling has performed with pianist Laurence Hobgood, bassist Rob Amster and drummer Frank Parker Jr. “They’re invaluable,” he says. “I’m one of the fortunate few to actually have a band where we really know the ins and outs of each other’s thing.” Elling and the trio play every Wednesday at Chicago’s historic Green Mill.

Now in its 20th season, the Bates College Concert Series has always been aimed at the discerning listener — the music lover seeking an extra edge of excitement, sophistication, fascination. Following Elling are jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove and singer Roberta Gambarini on Jan. 17, 2004, and the series ends with a concert of classical Chinese music by Tian Qing and Zhang Shan on Jan. 24.

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