Jazz review: Kurt Elling: The Questions
A philosophical patchwork where each element counts, but a deeper meaning arises from the whole
When art takes on politics, politics usually wins. Escapism is crushed under the iron heel of activism. Yet when the American jazz singer Kurt Elling addresses today’s turmoil he preserves his artistry by doing it obliquely. He juxtaposes entertaining and inspirational songs to suggest a centre of reflection. Not a swinging safe space, but a calm arena where patriotism and protest become poetry and peace.
So Bob Dylan and Paul Simon’s social consciousness rubs against Leonard Bernstein’s Broadway. The poetry of Wallace Stevens and Franz Wright is sung to new music. It’s a philosophical patchwork where each element counts, but a deeper meaning arises from the whole. Elling, a beatnik maverick whose style has matured into the mysterious and mesmerising, is the thread that draws it together.
Even so, when the singer starts his first number, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, a cappella, we fear we shall not be moved. Then the drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts kicks off, the saxophonist Branford Marsalis sneaks in and the preaching has a pulse. Negativity is often undercut like this. Hear how the asphalt angst of Lonely Town crumbles as Elling roams through the rhythm like a pilgrim in joyous isolation.
There’s plenty of subtle spirituality. Washing of the Water is buoyed by righteous redemption, while Marquis Hill’s trumpet lends American Tune the loneliness of a Salvation Army band in the rain. A Secret in Three Views, inspired by the fusion bassist Jaco Pastorius and the 13th-century mystic Rumi, becomes a heady workout for electric guitar and organ. Feeling agitated? Just vote for Elling.
Four stars: * * * *