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Classical crooner; Lewiston Jazz Festival headliner Kurt Elling says Bach inspired his musical career

In jazz, a number of roads will take you where you want to go. There is Berklee. Or Birdland.

And then there is Bach.

Ask Kurt Elling, the smooth-voiced jazz singer who is headlining the Lewiston Jazz Festival today.

Elling, Downbeat magazine's top male vocalist for 12 years now, grew up in Chicago as the son of a Lutheran church Kapellmeister (German for music director).

As a boy, he sang in the church choir. Now 43, he gives Bach credit for introducing him to the intricacies in music.

There are the technical benefits. Elling has a four-octave range. Jazz Times, which described him as "the most influential jazz vocalist of our time," praised his "intelligent phrasing, clear but pliable intonation, impeccable breath and pitch control."

Did Bach help with this? Elling says yes. Bach also influenced his compositions, he adds.

"Bach was really the master of musical architecture, and the structure of music is not something that was left behind by jazz musicians. It is exploited, entertained, stressed and reconfigured."

Maybe most important, Bach introduced Elling to a wide range of emotion and expression.

He grows serious, thinking about that. "The joy and the tenderness and the profound searching quality, the heartbreak, all the things that Bach was able to put into music. The terrible, terrible longing," he says. "And oftentimes a very triumphant feeling.

"That's all stuff that's immediately present in jazz music as well."

>Obama's old condo

Elling's appearance in Lewiston is part of the festival's 10th anniversary celebration.

"It has flown -- it has grown," jokes Sandy Hays-Mies, the festival's executive director. "We wanted to make our anniversary special."

Though Elling lives in New York, The News reached him in Chicago, at a relative's house. Kids keep interrupting him. (Elling and his wife, Jennifer, have one daughter.)

"Hey, buddy," Elling can be heard saying. "Hey, thanks, buddy. I'm on the phone doing an interview with a newspaper. No, not the actual newspaper. A person from a newspaper."

His Midwestern roots are deep. After graduating from Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, he attended the University of Chicago Divinity School, leaving one credit shy of his master's degree in order to pursue his singing.

Until recently, the Ellings lived in Chicago -- in a condo they bought from President Obama.

They knew each other slightly. "When he was home, he was in the neighborhood. Michelle [Obama] was in the neighborhood, and my old apartment was only a block and a half away from the place where they were living and raising their daughters," he says.

"His book sales were taking off, and he had just been elected senator, so he needed a mansion," he says, joking. "I needed laundry facilities in my unit."

>A river of singers

In college, Elling had thought of becoming a professor, and there is still something professorial about him. He chooses his words carefully. His music, too, has an intellectual quality.

Though he sings some standards, he has a wide knowledge of poetry and often sings poems he loves.

One intense number he performs is "The Waking," a poem by Theodore Roethke. Elling improvises a melody to it over an upright bass.

One of his mentors, and one whose music most closely resembles his, was beatnik singer Mark Murphy. Another was Jon Hendricks, of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, who influenced his creative scat singing.

"I hope that what I do honors Mark -- and honors Jon Hendricks, Joe Williams, Betty Carter, the whole river of jazz singers," Elling says. "I think the best way to do that is by further innovation ... all the people who I respect the most and adore the most in jazz music are all people who took their own paths."

Laughingly, he points out a riddle.

"It's kind of ironic, linguistically, to say we are all individuals," he says. "Jazz people are all trying to find a way through the music that belongs to them individually. At the same time, it builds on that which has gone before."

>The prickly Erik Satie

Reaching into the distant past, Elling admits there are a lot of musicians he wishes he could have observed.

"I have a big, long list," he says. "I'd love to catch John Coltrane for sure. Lester Young," he says, naming another saxophone legend. "And a young Miles. Before he was Miles Davis with all capital letters.

"I'd also like to go through the day with Erik Satie. Just to know what that spirit was like, how prickly and difficult that might have been.

And Bach, of course.

"That must be fascinating, to see how he dealt with all those kids [Bach had 20 children]," Elling laughs. "And the insufferability of his bosses! And he could still just turn out such incredible sounds. Beethoven would be great. I imagine he would be extremely difficult to deal with as a person. But I'd give it my best shot."

Luckily, Elling likes challenges.

"I always try to take on stuff that's too hard to do," he admits. "On the most recent record ['The Gate'] I didn't know how 'Come Run to Me' was coming together. If you're not challenged, you're not biting off a big enough piece."

What can Lewiston expect to hear?

It's telling that Elling can't really say.

"We'll be doing things from 'The Gate.' We'll be doing some favorites. If any of our fans show up, I like to do a couple of things they're going to know and a couple of things they haven't thought of yet.

"You just want to get out there, read the audience and find out what they're happiest with."


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