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VALLEY WEEKEND | SOUNDS

Chicago Singer Living Life in the Fast Lane--and Loving It

Vocalist Kurt Elling, whose debut album is in the running for a Grammy, is in the midst ofa 20-gig local tour, including a show in Northridge.

February 15, 1996|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's 11 a.m. on a February Sunday and Kurt Elling seems full of vim and vigor. Forget the fact that the singer arrived a week earlier from his home in Chicago, is camping out at his manager's house and has already worked several Southern California engagements, including one the previous night at New York West in Tarzana.

"I'm cool," the 28-year-old singer says good-naturedly when asked about his physical well-being. "I like working. That serves me. The only time I get dark is when I don't have enough gigs. That's the reason I'm out here, meeting new people, trying to get them to understand what I'm doing. I don't like to be static. I like to be in a place where I can keep on improving my art, and the best place to do that is in front of people in clubs."

Elling is assuredly a man on the move who knows where he's going. Standing about 5-foot-8 with a lean build and just-short-of-shoulder-length brown hair, the amiable singer exudes confidence, purpose.

With good reason. A year ago, Elling was all but unknown outside Chicago. But through an extraordinary debut album, "Close Your Eyes" on Blue Note Records (nominated last month for a best jazz vocal Grammy), and a lot of performance charisma, he's building a loyal following.

Which is why he's in L.A., appearing all over the place: He wants to "look the people here in the eyeballs, show them what I'm going for with live energy," he says, flashing an engaging smile.

In an attempt to accomplish that, Elling began Feb. 5 a string of about 20 engagements, which he will finish up March 5. Besides New York West, he's played Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood and the Baked Potato in Pasadena. He appears tonight at 72 Market St. in Venice (310-392-8720), Friday at the Club Brasserie in West Hollywood (310-854-1111), Saturday at the Atlas Bar & Grill in Los Angeles (213-380-8400) and Tuesday at Common Grounds in Northridge.

Fresh is the optimal word to describe Elling, whose gleaming voice ranges between barrel-deep baritone and somewhat high, airy tenor. An animated performer who works hard on stage, he delivers compelling versions of standards, such as "Close Your Eyes," as well as tunes by others to which he's penned original lyrics, a spontaneous improvisational burst of lyrical prose. Wayne Shorter's "Delores," which is on Elling's CD, becomes almost a beat poem over accompanying music.

With such risk-taking, Elling embraces the true spirit of jazz, stepping out fearlessly, seeking uncharted territory.

"Jazz is a forward-, not backward-looking music," he says with directness. "I'm not one who wants to do the same stuff twice. Even on a really old tune, you can be doing the new stuff. So I'm taking a direction and trying to push beyond it."

Elling's technique of spontaneous prose-verse, which he calls "going on the fly" or "ranting," has grown naturally from an interest in such poets as Rainer Maria Rilke and Kenneth Rexroth. "I start with images or emotions that give rise to metaphors," he says. "Then I follow them up, see where they go as I improvise."

*

The grandson of a Lutheran minister and the son of a Lutheran choral director, Elling went to graduate school in the late '80s, studying philosophy of religion on the way himself to becoming a minister. But he found an overwhelming desire to pursue singing, to which he'd been attracted since he was a youth, and he switched paths. He's both thrilled with and confident about what's happening with his career.

"I know what I want from this part of my life and I know there's a way for me to have that," he says. "And while I'm getting what I want, I feel I can really give a lot of things to people through my art. Really, I just want to remind people of the beauty of their lives, of this world. Remembering that it's there helps everybody."

* Kurt Elling sings at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Common Grounds, 9250 Reseda Blvd., Northridge. No cover, $2.50 minimum purchase. (818) 882-3666.

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