CD REVIEW: Kurt Elling – The Questions

You have to admire a singer’s courage when not only does he begin an album unaccompanied but with the relentlessly repetitious melody line of the verses of Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall. But is it courageous when that singer is Kurt Elling? Well, maybe not – such is Elling’s confidence in his (peerless?) technique that the risk he is taking here is minimal.
So, not necessarily daring but damned impressive nevertheless. It’s the nuanced attack on each repeated line, the gradual building of energy, all rewarded by the equally impressive arrangement of Elling and his pianist Stu Mindeman.

Elling’s guest spot on the last Branford Marsalis release is a favour repaid here by the saxophonist, pianist Joey Calderazzo in for a few tracks, and Marsalis’s long-time associate Jeff “Tain” Watts in the drum chair. Elling’s dependable guitarist John McLean is on fine form, and Clark Sommers is on bass. Trumpeter Marquis Hill guests.

The programme is as one has come to expect from recent Elling CDs – a mix of standards, both classic and modern, an original or two, a couple of choice jazz instrumentals given a vocal line and lyrics. The classic standards are Lonely Town, I Have Dreamed and Skylark, the modern ones, in addition to the Dylan, are Paul Simon’s American Tune (a second crack at this for Elling, this time with more elaborate arrangement) and Peter Gabriel’s Washing Of The Water. The vocalised instrumentals are Jaco Pastorius’s A Secret In Three Views and Carla Bley’s Endless Lawns. The originals are from Mindeman with Franz Wright, and Calderazzo with Elling and some Wallace Stevens.

I list them in that detail to accentuate Elling’s impeccable taste in songs. All these, with the possible exception of the Gabriel which is a bit dull, are top-of-the-range vehicles, and Elling and his band ride them in style.

It’s as lovely to hear Elling soar on the Pastorius as it was all those years ago to hear him do likewise on Pat Metheny’s Minuano; Mindeman adds some wicked Hammond B-3 on this one. The Carla Bley is a stroke of genius: Elling retains the composer’s art of graceful simplicity which lifts over the course of a tune into sublime profundity, and he adds the delicious cherry on the top with a vocalese solo using a Sara Teasedale poem.

Kurt Elling is able to take on many different characters, and, though they may all be masterful performances, were I to pick just one, the Elling that most clearly melts my heart (on today’s listen, anyway) is the one that glides like milk chocolate over the effortless groove of Lonely Town.