Kurt Elling’s family used music as a vehicle to praise the divine. Elling even went to divinity school, but soon realized he could better acclaim the spiritual with his musical gifts rather than by being ordained.
“I was interacting with people who were incredibly intelligent, but it was really more my métier to work in poetry and allusion,” Elling says of his conversion from aspiring cleric at the University of Chicago to full-time songwriter. “It was much more important to me to touch the heart, and the brain as well, but not to assert any specific outcome for my audience.”
Elling followed his path into songwriting and jazz. He has released over a dozen albums and won a Grammy. And on Dec. 15 he will perform two shows, “The Beautiful Day: Kurt Elling Sings Christmas,” which shares its name with his 2016 album, at the Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts in Costa Mesa.
The album applies a jazzy veneer to traditional holiday carols, including an ethereal take on “We Three Kings” and a spirited horn section backing up Elling’s vocals on the funky “This Christmas.”
Elling says it’s important to give the familiar tunes a new life.
“With some of the pretty old songs like ‘We Three Kings’ … I work with my collaborators and suss out the way that the melody wants to lay,” he says. “And I try to listen to what possibilities I feel I need to investigate, musically speaking.”
Elling says he has been as much influenced by Sting as by jazz greats John Hendrix, Mark Murphy, Shirley Horn and Ella Fitzgerald. However, he is quick to point out that jazz is not a “dead art.”
“Bobby McFerrin and Andy Bey live now [and] the music continues to move forward,” Elling says. “So I investigate those guys as much as I can as well.”
Of all his influences, it was the classical repertoire Elling absorbed in his father’s church that shaped his love for his art, with works ranging from Johann Sebastian Bach to Carl Orff. Elling’s father, kapellmeister at a Lutheran church in Chicago’s suburbs, insisted the entire family take up instruments and practice assiduously, as well as sing in his church choir.
“Music and the spirit were the two guiding forces in our family, so there was a heavy spiritual element that was interwoven throughout the holiday season,” Elling says of his early Christmases. “My father was a very pious man [and] very much believed that music existed to aid and abet the human spirit.”
While at divinity school, the younger Elling came to realize he differed with his father on certain doctrinal elements of Lutheranism and Christianity.
“There was a slow dawning of realizing I was in the wrong field,” Elling says, although that didn’t mean his days of praise were over. “I think the spirit realm is in [music] — the spirit of generosity and, I hope, kindness and compassion … [My father] did everything he could to focus on [his] task, and I do everything I can as a jazz musician now to do the same.”
Elling’s Segerstrom shows will feature what he calls a “hot band” of fellow Chicago musicians. In addition to their jazzy riffs on perennial Christmas classics, Elling will come center stage to recite work by the 13th century Persian poet Jalaluddin Rumi.
“We’re investigating compositions that are seasonal; they’re not exclusively Christian or even Judeo-Christian,” Elling says.
Even though the Chicagoan now lives in New York, most of his traveling band hails from the Windy City. And just as he once did, Elling encourages young musicians, calling music not just an art form by an “area of inquiry.”
“If you fall in love with a sound and you want to take part in that … you will give all of that energy to engage in that field,” he said. “You’ll want to meet everybody [and] do everything you can that you can think of to become the person that’s in your imagination … The biggest part is just giving yourself over wholly to your desires.”
And even though the music industry has drastically changed in the age of the internet, Elling maintains that for touring musicians like himself, much remains the same as it ever was: he’s scheduling as many concert dates as possible and just trying to keep the band together.
“We sing and play for our audiences as well as we can, physically, mentally and spiritually on a given night,” he says. “That hasn’t changed at all. What’s changed is the way music is recorded and sold. We think of mixing in a different way now because of [how] most people listen to music on tiny little speakers.”Eric Althoff is a contributor to Times Community News.
If You Go
What: “The Beautiful Day — Kurt Elling Sings Christmas”
When: Dec. 15, 7 and 9 p.m.
Where: Samueli Theater, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
Cost: Tickets start at $69