Kurt Elling Takes a Compassionate Stand with His New Version of ‘American Tune’

For as long as we’ve known Kurt Elling, he has been among our most inquisitive jazz vocalists.
He’s bringing that impulse front and center on his probing new album, The Questions, which will be released on OKeh Records/Sony Music Masterworks on March 23.

A varied collection of songs bound together by a topical urge, The Questions is Elling’s response to the conflict and uncertainty of our present age. The album, which he produced with saxophonist Branford Marsalis, opens with a version of Bob Dylan’s epochal broadside “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” Among the other artists covered are Peter Gabriel (“Washing of the Water”) and Carla Bley (“Endless Lawns,” fitted with lyrics).

Elling also offers a new version of “American Tune,” the anthemic Paul Simon ballad. Based on a melodic line from a Bach chorale (in St. Matthew Passion), the song was first heard on the 1973 album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. Simon has said that “American Tune” is the closest he has come to an overtly political song, written as it was just after the presidential election of Richard M. Nixon.

Elling has recorded it once before, for his 2012 album 1619 Broadway – The Brill Building Project. What drove him to revisit the song is clear in this video, which intersperses footage of the immigrant experience in this country, and concludes with an image of the State of Liberty, with an overlay of Emma Lazarus’ poem.

“‘American Tune’ became newly relevant with the rise of anti-immigrant activity in recent months,” Elling said in an emailed statement. “The Trump Administration has actively promoted anti-immigrant sentiment, has closed the door to thousands of would-be citizens — often breaking up families and endangering the lives of refugees who face the threat of death without American protection.”

He added: “‘American Tune’ reminds us of the humanity within those who have been threatened with deportation and exclusion, the fragile nature of our democracy, and the humane and generous principles upon which our nation was founded.”

Elling has a page on his website dedicated to nonprofit organizations he supports, including Refugees Welcome and Doctors Without Borders.

The Questions will be released on March 23. Preorder here.