Hot Wax Review: Kurt Elling’s The Questions

Religion or jazz: that’s the career choice, in a way, that Kurt Elling made when he decided on a jazz singing career, leaving a Chicago divinity school just one credit shy of graduation.
Not that he’s become a heathen. In fact, it could be said that although he did turn down serving the church, he sings with the fervor of a good preacher. His decision likely didn’t surprise anyone who had heard him perform regularly during his school years at the fabled Windy City Green Mill jazz club.

Jazz has welcomed him, as it should, from his early ’90s start. Blue Note, the most prestigious and oldest (1939) major label released his first album in 1995. This is his 13th. Elling is a unique, unendingly creative artist, far from just another singer – or even a typical jazz singer. He has an incredible, almost other-worldly, voice that seems to cover the scale from low-bass to tenor.

Dynamically, he moves from a near-whisper to a full-throated, near-shout. Phrasing? There isn’t, nor has there been, anyone quite like him. Although there were many before him going as far back as Louis Armstrong using scat and/or vocalese improvisational techniques, Elling uses them in an original manner.

He combines a narrative or spoken word, storytelling style with a more conventional smooth, flowing, melodic approach – all this sometimes on the same song. He perhaps is just a little too different for some listeners…and critics. Though every one of his albums has been nominated for a Grammy, he has won only one. The Jazz Journalist Association (JJA), however, has named him best male vocalist 14 consecutive years. Elling and his uniformly superb musicians offer nine numbers – a well thought out mix of mostly familiar pop, rock, theatrical and modern jazz tunes, including several written and/or arranged by Elling and band.

This is a strongly collaborative recording with all musicians involved in one or more functions beyond accompanying – composing, arranging, adapting and of course, soloing. The nine-song repertoire begins and ends with musical giants.

The opener is a highly emotional take on Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” and the closer an impassioned but unfortunately – and obviously institutionally – just a bit off the melody interpretation of famed songwriters Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael’s lovely “Skylark.” Elling’s improvised version still sustains the sweetness of the original. Other noted composers/songwriters heard from are an eclectic group: Peter Gabriel (“Washing of the Water”), Paul Simon (“American Tune”), Leonard Bernstein, Adolph Green, Betty Comden (“Lonely Town”), Oscar Hammerstein, Richard Rodgers (“I Have Dreamed”).

Not to overlook the musicians, Branford is mastering the soprano, “Tain” Watts is his highly regarded high-energy self, and the ear-opener is Calderazzo. Not heard from in a while, his three extended solos are everything anyone could ask for.