Review: Kurt Elling — The Questions

How does one grapple with existence and its juxtaposition against the present state of affairs? That’s the question that hangs heaviest over The Questions. While vocalist Kurt Elling didn’t come into this production with a theme in mind, he discovered a through line in the act of wrestling with difficulties and dreams in this age of marked unreason and unrest. With these ten songs he explores that topic to the fullest, coloring the music with his signature blend of authority and understanding.
A mixture of tones — inquiring and knowing — sets this meditation on humanity and our times in motion with “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” Bob Dylan’s difficult truths by way of Elling’s passionate delivery immediately become the cynosure of ears and minds, though co-producer Branford Marsalis’s soprano solo and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts’ pelting finish certainly garner attention. What follows — an examining and affirming smile at life in pianist Stu Mindeman’s musical setting of poet Franz Wright’s ” A Happy Thought,” a gorgeous treatment of “American Tune” that recasts the Paul Simon classic as a treatise on immigration wrapped in hope’s light and trapped in fear’s web, and a hymn-like interpretation of Peter Gabriel’s “Washing Of The Water” that’s as emotive as anything in Elling’s discography — greatly furthers the image of the artist playing with the powers of enlightenment and doubt.

Through the remainder of the album, Elling paints with the various shades of perception, poetry, and philosophy that he knows so well. The bluesy resonance of “A Secret In Three Views” belies the deep thinking behind his Rumi-inspired lyrics to Jaco Pastorius’ “Three Views Of A Secret,” “Lonely Town” utilizes lighthearted sounds to frame the topic of solitude, “Endless Lawns” uses pianist-composer Carla Bley’s “Lawns” as the musical basis for an arc that includes turmoil and release, and “I Have Dreamed” speaks to a yearning for love to bloom. Then the album closes with “The Enchantress,” a work nodding toward matriarchal figures — both Marsalis’ and Elling’s — and taking directional cues from poet Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea Of Order At Key West,” and a toned-down “Skylark,” bringing the title of this album into lyrical consideration in a subdued light. The core band members and notable guests all make the weight of their contributions felt along the way here, but Elling manages to carry the weight of the world in his voice. He may not have the answer to all of the questions, but he certainly makes you think about them.

Four and 1/2 stars

Track Listing: A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall; A Happy Thought; American Tune; Washing Of The Water; A Secret In Three Views; Lonely Town; Endless Lawns; I Have Dreamed; The Enchantress; Skylark.

Personnel: Kurt Elling: vocals; Stu Mindeman: piano, Hammond B-3 organ; Joey Calderazzo: piano (4, 6, 9); John McLean: acoustic guitar, electric guitar; Clark Sommers: bass; Branford Marsalis: saxophones; Marquis Hill: trumpet, flugelhorn; Jeff “Tain” Watts: drums.