Grammy-winning jazz vocalist Kurt Elling is known for doing the unexpected. Just look at what he's done during the pandemic:
Last summer at the height of COVID, he moved his family from New York City back to Chicago.
Then he recorded — get ready for this — a funky dance record with avant-garde guitarist Charlie Hunter.
But first, the practical. Elling returned to Chicago for two reasons: His daughter is attending an arts high school, and he and his wife wanted their children to get to know their grandparents better.
"New York was intended to be a quick experiment. We stayed 10 or 12 years longer than we had originally thought we would," said Elling. "I'm not sure I was making that big of a difference in New York, whereas in Chicago I was able to sustain a neighborhood by doing porch concerts."
The Elling family did not return to the Windy City condo they bought from Barack and Michelle Obama when he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2005. (The Ellings have tenants in that place, which has a plaque saying Obama lived there.) They chose a home closer to their daughter's school.
As for the album "SuperBlue," due in October, it's jazzed-up funk, featuring Hunter with drummer Corey Fonville and bassist-keyboardist DJ Harrison of the Virginia band Butcher Brown.
"It will sound like nothing I've been making in the past. It's not an acoustic record. It's not really a jazz record," the singer-songwriter said. "It's a backbeat record. It's something people can dance to. It's largely original compositions. It's funky, and we're gonna have a ball."
Patriotic, not just political
The project follows last year's Grammy-earning album "Secrets Are the Best Stories," filled with oblique sounds, political commentary and a nod to Minnesota poet Robert Bly.
Less energetic than "SuperBlue" but consistently engrossing, "Secrets" continued Elling's fascination with poetry and politics.
"We've had a particularly harrowing four years and there's a certain kind of poison that has entered the bloodstream of our nation," the Chicago singer said. "That poison continues to be a source of pain, conflict and infection — and it's not over."
For the 53-year-old, putting political commentary in song is "a way of being patriotic. It's one way I can stand up for the nation and for one another."
In "Song of the Rio Grande (For Oscar and Valeria Martinez-Ramirez)," Elling shares the story of immigrants — from optimism to hopelessness — ending with the line "America has lost its mind."
Said Elling: "I'm probably overdue at making such direct statements, given the pain and suffering of fellow citizens and people who are less privileged than I am."
Elling is no stranger to political songs. On his 2018 album, "The Questions," he recorded a suite-like version of Bob Dylan's anti-nuclear song "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" that's even longer than the bard's epic seven-minute original.
"Well, we got a saxophone solo in there," Elling said, laughing heartily.
He views Dylan as a master storyteller with a watchful eye, much like poet Walt Whitman during the Civil War era.
Elling long has had a love for poetry, which he credits to being "surrounded by the heightened language of ecclesia all of my formative years." His grandfather was a minister, his father a church choirmaster and Elling himself was one class short of a degree from the University of Chicago Divinity School.
He admires Bly, whose translations of Rumi appealed to him. He created "Gratitude (for Robert Bly)" on "Secrets Are the Best Stories," based on a Bly poem about an aging artist who has too much wine one night and gets grumpy about being misunderstood.
"He essentially forgets his gratitude," Elling explained. "You let the dark side get to you."
Bly isn't Elling's only Minnesota connection. The singer graduated with a degree in history from Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, where his roommates expanded his jazz horizons to include Dave Brubeck, Herbie Hancock and Al Jarreau.
He vividly remembers going to the old Artists' Quarter club in south Minneapolis to see acclaimed San Francisco jazz singer Mark Murphy — "that was a game-changer."
His Minnesota roots go even deeper. His father was born in Alexandria, his minister grandfather was based in the Carver County town of Hamburg for a while, and his "ancient family" lived just outside Mankato "when they first came over as German settlers."
Known for challenging himself (and listeners), Elling has set the poems of Whitman and Theodore Roethke to music, put words to compositions by jazz titans Wayne Shorter and Jaco Pastorius and interpreted songs by Paul Simon and the Beatles alongside jazz standards.
A bit of a Renaissance man, he also published two volumes of "The Guerrilla Diaries" — tales of his life on tour — and created a noir musical called "The Big Blind," modeled after old-fashioned radio dramas.
Elling's concerts can become dramatic, whether he's scatting, improvising lyrics, delivering beat poetry or serenading on standards.
A baritone with a four-octave range, he has recorded for such esteemed jazz labels as Blue Note and Concord over the years, but "Secrets" was released by an indie company, Edition Records. His 15 albums have earned him 13 Grammy nominations and two trophies.
Last year Elling had planned to tour with piano savant Danilo Perez, who accompanied him on much of "Secrets," but COVID-19 scuttled that.
For Saturday's show, he will perform with his regular keyboardist, Stu Mindeman.
"He and I are working up a whole new artistic event — a bespoke occasion in Minneapolis," Elling said. "First of all, I want to make people happy and that means having fun. I traditionally get a little serious on my shows, but I don't think people need that so much right now and I am not sure I need to, either.
"I think we're going to frolic. We'll have some experimentation. We'll have some love songs of a new variety."
Twitter: @JonBream • 612-673-1719
Twin Cities Jazz Festival
Friday: Andrew Walesch plays Cole Porter, plus Jazz Women All Stars, 6 p.m.; Jerry Bergonzi Quartet, 7 p.m.
Saturday: Kurt Elling at 7:30 p.m.; Jamecia Bennett, 6 p.m.; Jon Weber, 6 p.m.
Sunday: Jerry Bergonzi Quartet plus JazzMN Orchestra with Ricky Peterson and Bob Mintzer, 4 p.m.; Connie Evingson with Jon Weber and Dennis Spears, 7 p.m.
Where: Crooners, 6161 Hwy. 65 NE., Fridley. croonersloungemn.com.
Streaming: Concerts will also be livestreamed; see twincitiesjazzfestival.com for details.