Kurt Elling: The Questions — ‘a supple jazz score’

The vocalist juxtaposes protest songs with poetry and follows showtune classics with literate vocalese.
Press notes tell us that the questions of the title range from the existential “What is this life?” to the pertinent and political “Why is there such suffering and pain? Vocalist Kurt Elling’s gripping CD addresses the issues raised by juxtaposing protest songs with poetry and following showtune classics with Elling’s literate vocalese.

Answers are hinted at. But the supple jazz score suggests that it is in the journey that answers might be found. “Live the questions now,” quotes the CD sleeve from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. “Perhaps you will gradually, without noticing it, live the answer”.

The album opens with a cover of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”. Elling’s diction and pitching are perfect, producer/saxophonist Branford Marsalis spins modal jazz and the track ends with a thunder of Jeff Watts’ drums. It’s a far cry from the original, but carries emotional weight.

“A Happy Thought” follows, a poem by the American poet Franz Wright, themed on the inevitability of death. It’s nothing to be afraid of, the poem suggests, hence the upbeat music arranged by the band’s pianist, Stu Mindeman.

Other poetic references include lyrics from Sara Teasdale’s poem “Winter Stars” set to Carla Bley’s “Lawns” — the piece, re-titled “Endless Lawns”, features a winsome trumpet solo from Marquis Hill. And the brooding Joey Calderazzo original, “The Enchantress” finds Elling drawing on Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West”.

Elsewhere, Paul Simon’s “American Tune” and Peter Gabriel’s “Washing of the Water” are sparsely arranged Elling highlights, Calderazzo delivers a searching piano solo on Bernstein’s “Lonely Town”, and Branford Marsalis’s soprano sax sparkles on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “I Have Dreamed”.

The album ends with whines of Johnny McLean’s guitar introducing Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark”. The track begins spaciously, piano and guitar blend delicately over a swish of drums and Elling wrings the last drop of emotion out of lyric and line.

Four stars: * * * *