CD Review: The Questions

The fantastical promise of jazz singers like Billy Eckstine and Johnny Hartman was that everyone, regardless of race or birth, somehow might partake in the small pleasures of the American upper class. A virtuoso African-American vocalist, singing a breezy Broadway hit in a sanguine croon, could push toward something outside of politics, almost outside of time.
Kurt Elling always has taken his cues from singers like these, working with their dialectic of measured masculinity and antiquarian charm — and extravagant talent. But his situation is significantly different: An epoch has passed, the tradition has shifted some, jazz’s identity is more culturally fixed. And Elling is a white guy, who’s as upper-middle-class-seeming as they come.

Still, on albums like Close Your Eyes, his 1995 debut, and The Gate, a 2011 career highlight, his task has been to somehow carry the softly transcendent theatrics of jazz vocals into the present day. How does that sound in 2018, with Elling now 50 and the fate of a beleaguered nation on his mind?

On The Questions, Elling continues his interrogation of that old crooner’s role, but — wisely — he’s delving into something else, too. That other thing comes to him through Oscar Brown Jr. and Abbey Lincoln, poet-singers with sociopolitical messages to espouse. (Brown’s album Tell It Like It Is, from 1963, is an odd kind of forerunner to The Questions.) Elling’s song choices are a major part of the disc’s identity: American folk song, jazz standards and originals that blend famous poetry with his lyrics.

The band is a tightly knit group of A-listers – saxophonist Branford Marsalis, trumpeter Marquis Hill, pianist Stu Mindeman and drummer Jeff “Tain ” Watts, among others. The musicians enjoy a general ease of motion across folk-rock saunters and glimmering post-bop.

Elling leads the album with Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and moves into the dreamy patriotism of Paul Simon’s “American Tune.” But any consideration of national identity is couched in a broader context. Elling has his mind on aging and senescence, themes that materialize during some of the album’s most engaging moments. On “A Happy Thought,” he sings the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Franz Wright’s free verse — “what frightened me, apparently, and hurt / was being born. But I got over that / with no hard feelings. Dying, I imagine, / it will be the same deal” – over a snaky, propulsive Mindeman melody.

To the extent Elling finds an answer to the questions he poses here — of mortality, futility, membership, disappearance — it comes in the form of fellowship. The Carla Bley composition “Lawns,” retitled here as “Endless Lawns,” comes with lyrics by Elling, plus verses from Sara Teasdale’s poem “Winter Stars.” As Mindeman plays the simple chord sequence, Elling sings Teasdale’s wistful lines in a spry, ad-libbed rhythm – “Years go, dreams go, and youth goes too, / The world’s heart breaks beneath its wars” – but then returns to his own words, with a plea for solidarity: “Come climb the skies with me / Come here.”

Three and 1/2 stars