Kurt Elling Summarizes the State of Jazz Singing on ‘The Questions’

Kurt Elling summarizes the state of jazz singing almost every time he hits the recording studio, His latest, The Questions, is no exception. That doesn’t mean that all of Elling’s recordings are equally successful, but — with his exquisite instrument and his instinct for balancing traditional jazz vocal traditions a modern approach — he is a singer who always has his finger on what matters.
The Questions is a probing program that interrogates a wide swath of American songwriting, from Hoagy Carmichael to Paul Simon to jazz composers Carla Bley and Jaco Pastorius. It doesn’t feel like a Whitman’s sampler, however, because Elling and co-producer Branford Marsalis provide focus through arrangements and a band that are lean but not loose. The result is a collection that has stylistic range but feels like straight-up meat on the bone: music that has the harmonic and structural complexity of “jazz” but that serves the songs, first and foremost.

In the current constellation of singers to whom the world “jazz” could be applied, Elling seems central, a hub that is connected to many different, further-flung stars. He can be soulful like Gregory Porter, but his pop instinct is less prominent. He can handle classic material with the élan of Cecile McLorin Salvant, but he seems less like a throwback. He has a way of meeting more modern material with the artful breathlessness of Becca Stevens, but you’re never tempted to suggest that he’s not really “jazz” anymore.

Opening the program with Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” is bold, what with the limited melodic content of the tune. Elling begins unaccompanied, putting the focus (where it belongs) on the lyrics, but the arrangement that bleeds in adds a distinctive melodic figure for guitar (John McLean) and a gorgeously suspended rhythmic groove courtesy of drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts. The rhythm section splashes cool, oblique harmonies behind each verse as Watts roils and cooks tastefully, and then Marsalis takes a soprano saxophone solo over a walking bass groove that swings you into relief. The track achieves exactly the balance of the album as a whole: with all the pleasures of a great Dylan song merging comfortably with dramatic, accessible modern jazz. And, most importantly, Elling’s voice — with its heft, resonance, and capacity for drama — is more than able to hold its own against such a fascinating arrangement.

At the other end of the spectrum is a new arrangement of “Skylark”, an old standard that every jazz singer tackles in one way or another. McLean’s guitar begins, playing impressionistic washes on electric guitar that would sound at home on a Bill Frisell outing. Elling is tender and gentle on the start, only the guitar behind him, turning the melody in a couple of unexpected directions but never too far from Carmichael’s original idea. The band comes in on the bridge, playing more traditional jazz ballad accompaniment, but Elling’s slightly dreamy abstraction has already set the mood. Stu Mindeman’s piano solo, as a result, is spare and modern, with a couple of moments of gentle dissonance that resolve back into beauty. Again: this comes off as a thoroughly modern performance that nevertheless nods to tradition without contradiction.

In the middle, Elling finds ways to carve out huge chunks of originality. Carla Bley’s “Lawns” is remade as a gently funky “Endless Lawns”, with the simple melody riding over a teasing groove and under a so-mellow-it-sounds-like-a-flute trumpet line from Marquis Hill. This is the kind of hip stuff that takes you back to ’70s soul while seeming as transparently gorgeous as Kind of Blue. If only “smooth jazz” listeners of the 1980s could have heard this, with Clark Sommers’ acoustic bass hipper than a room full of synthesizers, and Elling’s interpretation of a Sara Teasdale poem in the place of a “solo” serving as uplift and complexity. It is a perfect performance in every way. “A Happy Thought” is also based on a poem, this time by Franz Wright, with a Mindeman melody that fills your ear with liminal light, uplift amidst questions. Surely the source of the recording’s title.

Two songs from musical theater work wonderfully. “I Have Dreamed” from The King and I is rarely covered by jazz singers, though there is a classic Sinatra version. Elling places a rat-a-tat drum pattern beneath it but keeps it slow, trumpet and saxophone playing open harmonies in the air above his voice. It’s a beautiful love song, and this version is just gorgeous in a 21st century kind of way, but still lush. “Lonely Town” is by Leonard Bernstein and from On the Town — another love song, here taken as a slightly busy Latin groove for the piano trio.

The two other rock era “standards” are possibly the best things on The Questions. “Washing of the Water” is a gospel-based ballad from Peter Gabriel, a straight duet for Elling and piano with the singer using his falsetto at times, laying in a gentle, breathy performance that aches, even as it becomes louder on the bridge, ending with the phrase, “the loneliness I hide”.

The centerpiece of the recording, however, is Elling’s return to a song he has been working on for some time: Paul Simon’s “An American Tune”. His duet with pianist Laurence Hobgood on 1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project was a spare masterpiece, and he has also performed the song in front of the Metropole Orchestra in concert. Here, however, he finds a middle space in which Simon’s reflection on a kind of American woundedness (“I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered / Or driven to its knees”) is not a whisper but also not ginned up into grandeur.

The version here finds a spine-chilling balance of power and fragility. At the start and again at the beginning of the song’s (somewhat) hopeful last verse, the arrangement is limited to delicate chiming piano (or echoing guitar) and voice, but there is a backbone, four-note figure that also gives the verses a surge of momentum that Elling’s voice keeps pushing back on, creating a marvelous tension. In the song’s astonishing middle section (“And I dreamed I was dying / I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly / And looking back down at me / Smiled reassuringly”), the horns start to surround Elling’s voice, causing him to press it harder, swelling it but with almost no theatrical vibrato, and then to sing wordlessly along with the horns in a passage that gets you right in your bones.

In moments like those, Kurt Elling is not just the best jazz singer of the moment, he is simply one of the best singers of any kind, an artist who is taking this stuff, American music, and using it to tell a story that touches you in a soft spot, a spot you need to be spoken to. The Questions is one of those recordings that gets richer the more you open yourself to it. Which you should.

Eight stars (of ten): * * * * * * * *