What use has the Claudia Quintet — whose textured, complex jazz relies on dense instrumental interplay — for a crooner like Kurt Elling? A lot, it turns out. This is evidenced on What Is the Beautiful?, the New York ensemble's lovely but unsettling new album for Silver Spring's Cuneiform Records.
But Elling doesn't sing here. Nine of the 12 tracks are drummer-composer John Hollenbeck's settings for the verses of proto-Beat poet Kenneth Patchen, which Elling recites on five pieces. He dominates the ensemble's matrix of timbre and polyrhythm. And as good as his singing is, his speaking voice — a rich, sonorous tenor with a bit of flint and an actor's confidence — is even better.
Elling delivers stark Patchen lines about destroying the world as part of a job application ("Job") and societal complicity in a lynching ("The Bloodhounds"), but it's the musicians (drummer John Hollenbeck, tenor saxophonist Chris Speed, vibraphonist Matt Moran, accordionist Ted Reichman, bassist Drew Gress, and "+1” pianist Matt Mitchell) who give them depth. On "Job," Hollenbeck and Gress create an erratic groove with a confounding meter, emphasizing the words' black humor, while Speed moans softly and sorrowfully on the "The Bloodhounds." After those songs, the deluge: "What is the Beautiful?" asks Elling in the title song. Moran and Reichman respond in luminous tones that darken with Patchen's images of "unrest in the outer districts" and "bodies cracked open like nuts." As Elling continues musing about this strange future, the full ensemble enters, oscillating between light and dark while navigating around full stops signaled by Elling's repeated commands of "pause.” Even that ambiguity feels profound.
Theo Bleckmann sings the other four poems. On "The Snow is Deep on the Ground," he sees in the wintry precipitation a divine reassurance, while Moran and Mitchell evoke its life-affirming chill. Yet Reichman and Speed turn in sad solos between verses, which are driven home in the CD booklet's printed poem: Bleckmann omits two lines that completely change the tone — "The war has failed" and "Only a few go mad." Their absence is far more disturbing than their inclusion would have been.
The three non-Patchen songs are instrumentals. Two, "Mates for Life" and "Flock," feel out of place. The third, "Peace of Green," is a short lyrical passage with a headache-inducing rhythm cycle that meshes nonetheless. Still, in the end it's the poet's words — and Elling's and Bleckmann's treatments of them — that give What Is the Beautiful? its spellbinding, nerve-rattling grandeur.