Kurt Elling: Shoulder to goodwill wheel

“Well man, I’m trying to sing to the moment. I’m not a protest singer, but there’s a lot to protest. I’m not a musician who writes or performs from anger. But there’s a lot to be angry about.”
So says Grammy Award-winning jazz vocalist Kurt Elling, whose yearning, elegiac new album The Questions, as its title suggests, asks more questions than it answers for our troubled times.

A haunting version of the Bob Dylan classic A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall sets the general tone. Also included are covers of Paul Simon’s An American Tune and Peter Gabriel’s Washing of the Water. There are originals too, as well as the expected dip into the Great American Songbook and Broadway with numbers such as Bernstein, Comden and Green’s Lonely Town.

Elling, who performs material from the album in Perth next month, says he began experimenting with A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall in November 2016, just after the US election. “I didn’t go out of my way to create a dour or defeatist record,” he says.

“I try to include as many antidotes as I was able to come up with. But I didn’t want to shy away from calling out the disease as well.

“The Bob Dylan thing is a perfect opener, in that it gives the warning. It calls out issues that could easily be ripped from today’s headlines. It’s an incredible masterpiece of poetry. But then I follow that up with A Happy Thought (a Franz Wright poem set by Elling’s collaborator, pianist Stu Mindeman), which is a very calming and encouraging piece.”

He adds though that it doesn’t seem the time to just sing about love or romance. “It’s the time to try to be a citizen and a patriot and to try to do whatever I can to put my shoulder to the wheel on behalf of people of goodwill everywhere. It’s a small thing I can do — I’m just a jazz singer — but I want to do whatever I can.”

Which is actually quite a lot. Elling’s art is expansive, even visionary. When interpreting standards or improvised solos by greats such as John Coltrane and Keith Jarrett, he will often compose his own lyrics, drawing on poets and authors such as Rumi, Rilke, Neruda and Proust in doing so.

As former US Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky said, “In Kurt Elling’s art, the voice of jazz gives a new spiritual presence to the ancient, sweet and powerful bond between poetry and music.”

But now, perhaps more than ever, he is preoccupied by what is happening to his own country, and to the world at large. “I needed to deal specifically with the American situation at this point,” he says. “I needed to confront it and to look at the corrosion from within. Of not only the pillars of our government, but the ideals on which those pillars were built.”

He says the refusal to acknowledge and embrace the humanity of immigrants is anathema to what it means to be American. “Then there’s using Washington DC essentially as a playground,” he says. “There’s no moral centre at all. We’re in a jam, and obviously apart from the geopolitical crisis we have this ecological crisis that we’re doing next to nothing about.

“As a father-of-two, as a citizen of the world and as a patriot I feel very strongly the need to confront as much as I can, in my work, that which is before us. But also to extend a hand of friendship and welcome and camaraderie and comfort to everyone where possible. If at all possible. And to couch it in music with my friends and collaborators on the recording, we’re trying to offer something that can help the individual listener.”

Kurt Elling performs at the Astor Theatre on June 6. The Questions is out now.