Performance Review: Kurt Elling Returns with a New Album and a Hopeful, though Guarded, View

“Oh, where have you been my blue-eyed son?”
Dylan’s opening line of “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” was also Kurt Elling’s opening line in his return-to-Chicago, album release concert at The Promontory in Hyde Park on a windblown March 20th evening.

While no storm waged lakeside that night, one could sense that another type has brewed in the soul of the Windy City’s prodigal son since, oh, 2016. And his new release, The Questions, is his type of response to the sociopolitical maelstrom concomitant with the climate extremes that have plagued this country recently.

At the same time, it seemed important that Elling did come home, perhaps to plant his feet on solid ground and regenerate his roots. Toward the end of the evening, almost as though relieved, he stated, “It’s good to be home again.” He exclaimed, one by one, that all of the musicians on stage were from “Chicago [f____kin’] Illinois,” as if to make clear his allegiances were unchanged, that the two scheduled concerts were love letters as well as retreats.

Based purely on observation, Elling needn’t have worried. A nearly-packed house (on what he called a “windy-ass Tuesday”) awaited him and his also beloved mates, anticipating some sort of stirring yet soothing message, like church.

And they got it. The maelstrom referenced above has given Kurt a chance to operate in his wheelhouse, where the sacred meets the secular, where metaphysics drives sentiment, where Rumi coexists with his father’s religion. Elling’s response seems to be not getting angry but, metaphorically, getting even. He talked about the futility of anger, and later stated he “couldn’t do a protest album.” Caught between his generally bourgeois fan base and his identification with melting pot Chicago, the new album gives listeners a chance to dwell on the moment while avoiding any acerbic confrontation.

Live, though, in his homeland’s living room, the now 50-year-old singer was able to be more transparent among ‘family.’ He waxed apologetically about having to stash his two horn players, the trumpet star Marquis Hill and sturdy sax man John Wojciechowski, in the corner stage right, as demanded by the management of six accompanying players, including a piano and Hammond B-3 played by Stu Mindeman, the necessary and vital midstage upright bass of Clark Sommers, the drum kit of Christian Euman, and the guitar amp of Elling regular and increasingly important John McLean.

His comments were dotted with questions, more age-conscious than polemical, such as “How did we get here?” or “When will the police show up?” The mixed-race audience, skewed older, chuckled and nodded in accordance.

Bookended by pieces written by two great modern American songwriters, the music rose up and down, like the river in Elling’s most spiritual new song, “Washing of the Water.” The gospel-like ambiance, with lyrics evoking images of baptism and redemption, was abetted by Mindeman’s B-3 comping, as Kurt beseeched the river to “bring me something to help me get to sleep.” Roughly following the new album’s song order, “A Happy Thought” sought to balance the apocalyptic imagery of Dylan’s poetics with hope, supported by a dancing Mindeman solo; and the McLean-arranged “I Have Dreamed” looked forward to love reasserting itself, with sweet tandem blowing from the horns while McLean created a tidy, Latin-tinged soliloquy.

To this listener, Elling’s continued contribution to recent jazz is his extension of the art of vocalese, taking poetic license in the interpretation of seemingly indomitable compositions. In this case, he tackled Jaco Pastorius’ “Three Views of a Secret” as “A Secret in Three Views,” a postmodern blues (bolstered by terrific Sommers lines and sharp, gritty playing by McLean), with Zawinulian comping on organ by Mindeman.

“Lonely Town,” with Hill’s plaintive sighs building up to his own dancing expression, once again juxtaposed darkness with light, with Elling banging on the tambourine and scatting along with Chicago’s rising star.

But the singer remembered where he was, and, after a comic juxtaposition of theology and road trips led to musing about domestic tranquility, Elling dove into another question and, perhaps, a Jon Hendricks tribute, “Did You Call Her Today?” This swing blues gave the musicians, especially Hill, a chance to stretch out, Orleans-style. Call it “Easy Chair Blues” in Kurt’s homey family room.

A rousing rendition of Chicagoan Oscar Brown’s “Long as You’re Living,” where Elling dropped allusions to ‘The Prophet,’ pulled much of the evening’s mood together and created the pure jazz at the heart of the singer’s soul. Elling’s effluent scatting, with ample support from Sommers and Euman, led to a terrific tag team performance by Hill and Wojcichowski.

Yet, within the revelry, Elling was clearly a concerned man. He elicited, early, a shared feeling: “We’ve been up against it.” Later, the guy who sang in front of Chicago’s very own President Obama let his guard down a bit. Before a thoughtful encore, Paul Simon’s “American Tune,” he made a comment about someone being “Putin’s lapdog.” Ultimately, though, Elling wanted peace, not war: “We need to learn how to speak to each other.” Perhaps as a counterargument to the Evangelicals, Kurt, as usual, borrowed from Rumi: “Any talk of God that does not comfort is a lie.” And “Questions are bigger than the answers…live the questions now.”

The encore pulled that other strain together with the rest. When Homeboy sings, “Still, you don’t expect to be / Bright and bon vivant / So far away from home, so far away from home,” the poignancy nails home, so to speak, the connection between artist and turf.

Church being over, Elling moved to an entrance table loaded with boxes of CD’s to greet those he hoped would take advantage of being the first in the United States to purchase his new album. Based on the length of that line, Kurt should be satisfied that Chicago’s son was welcomed home, indeed.