There was always something special about vocalist Kurt Elling. Amid his myriad of sophisticated cabaret, some hard-to-describe essence drew me to his music in small doses, a music I used to scoff at, a music that always reminded me of Bill Murray’s bad nightclub singer routine on Saturday Night Live. But when he teamed up with sax man Branford Marsalis in 2016 for Upward Spiral, his promise turned into pure vocalese artistry.
Marsalis is back producing The Questions (Okeh Records/Sony Music Masterworks). Elling may not have the answers for America’s horrible event on Election Day two Novembers ago, but covering Bob Dylan’s prophetic “A Hard Rain’s A’Gonna Fall” is disturbingly accurate…and he sings it like Dylan himself never could. He also takes Paul Simon’s profound “An American Tune” and sings it in a laconic world-weary attitude of resignation. Ditto for Peter Gabriel’s “Washing Of The Water.” “Lonely Town,” from the 1944 Broadway musical On The Town, fits this sense of loss. Branford’s solo on “I Have Dreamed” from another musical, 1951’s The King And I, adds lightness and beauty (maybe even hope) as does the Elling original “A Secret In Three Views,” which he borrowed from a Jaco Pastorius instrumental by adding lyrics which he adapted from a poem by a 13th Century mystic known as Rumi.
Who knew Elling was so esoteric! His voice fits each song like a character actor inhabiting a movie role, warm, expressive, to-the-point, in service to the song with no so-called soul stylings or overbaked melisma.
Glenn Miller had the original hit on “Skylark” in 1942 and it’s been done to death ever since. In fact, even after the song died, it’s been whipped like a dead horse to the point of me thinking that if I ever heard it again, I’d blow my brains out. Guess what? Elling has made the dead horse come back to life. Amazingly enough — despite stretching it out to what would otherwise have been an agonizing 8:12 — it’s the highlight of the CD. He sings it like no one else ever did: not Aretha Franklin, Bing Crosby, Bobby Darin, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Bette Midler, Linda Ronstadt, Rosemary Clooney, k.d. lang or Bob Dylan could revive this war horse. Elling, with the help of pianist Stu Mindeman, tackles its rusty and falling-apart Hoagy Carmichael melody and not only comes out still standing but reviving a dead animal into a thoroughbred ready for the Kentucky Derby.