The Gospel of Kurt Elling

I hadn’t even wanted to go.
It was March 17 – St. Patrick’s Day, 2006. Kurt Elling, a jazz singer, was playing at the Strathmore Center, a resplendent new $100-million concert hall near my house in Maryland. I didn’t know much about Elling. And to be honest, I didn’t care. Still, it was between Kurt Elling and a Law & Order rerun (I don’t drink, which makes St. Paddy’s a bit dull).

Elling, 38, calm, neatly groomed, began the show with a couple of standards, backed by his ace band: Laurence Hobgood on piano, Rob Amster on bass, and Willie Jones III on drums. Then Elling launched into “My Foolish Heart”:

The night is like a lovely tune
Beware my foolish heart
How white the ever-constant moon
Take care my foolish heart
There’s a line between love and fascination
It’s hard to see on an evening such as this

All expertly delivered. Halfway through the song, the band drifted into one of those breaks that jazz bands do, where everyone gets a chance to play a little solo. Then Hobgood’s piano drifted off, and all that was left was the low throb of the bass and drums. Elling began to sing in his five-octave baritone:

One dark night
Fired with love’s urgent longings
Clothed in sheer grace
I went out unseen
My house being all now still

On that night
In secret for no one saw me
With no other light that the one that burned in my heart
This guided me more surely than the light of noon
To where she waited for me

It was St. John of the Cross. Elling was commingling “My Foolish Heart” with a 16th-century Christian mystic.I felt a sparkler ride up my spine.

The band was barely playing, hardly even rising above silence. Elling was singing. I found myself lost in rapture. The late great Jesuit priest Paul Quay once wrote that the point of sex was to elevate oneself and another to the love of God, and Elling was treating his audience as a lover. And finding and succeeding with a lover entails risk, fear, commitment, a covenant. This wasn’t going to be a night of rickety standards and nice comfortable swing. Kurt Elling was going to do what jazz so seldom does anymore: he was going to take a chance, lay himself bare on the stage.

Elling reached the end of St. John, and the band roared back to the finale of “My Foolish Heart.” This was one of the most staggeringly brilliant explorations of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body I had ever witnessed. In ten minutes Elling made the point that John Paul the Great made in 500 pages: our bodily love is an icon of the love of God. St. John venturing out in “the mystic night” for God was following the same path trod by the speaker in “My Foolish Heart.”

I wasn’t surprised to learn after the concert that Kurt Elling is a former divinity student from Chicago. I immediately went out and bought all of his albums. The best, in my view, is Live in Chicago. It has that version of “My Foolish Heart,” but every track is outstanding. It’s one of those albums, like Sgt. Pepper’s, John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme or the Beach Boys Pet Sounds, that seems to grow larger rather than smaller with repeated listening. When Elling does standards he often plays with them, adding interludes, letting his voice play with the scales, adding humor—and all without losing the core of the melody. He sings the blues with exuberance and wit, and also does pop, covering Sting’s “Oh My God.” One particular stunner among gems is “Esperanto.” Elling sings about not knowing—”when I die, where does time go?” Then, at the end, he looks at the world and, in a repetitive chant, declares all things great and small holy. Breathtaking.

Elling recently returned from a tour of Europe, and I saw him November 3 at Washington’s Kennedy Center. One thing the promotional materials don’t note is that on top of all his accomplishments—six Grammy nominations, honors upon honors, etc.—Elling is very funny. The European tour was grueling. “We’re just back from a ten-year tour,” he quipped. It was a beat or two before anyone got it. “They keep making new countries over there,” he said.

He opened with “My Foolish Heart,” but this time the interlude was a poem by an 8th-century Sufi mystic, Rabia al-Adawiyya. She lived in Basra, “the spot of some controversy for various reasons,” Elling commented, carefully avoiding a shut-up-and-sing moment (I have no idea what Elling’s politics are.) He brilliantly swung through a fiery number written by jazz legend Benny Carter, and added some lyrics to a classic by Dexter Gordon. Then, by way of explanation, he sang, unaccompanied, telling the audience how his interpretation of Gordon was out of respect and adding something new. It was brave, and funny.

A few months ago, Joseph Bottom, the editor of First Things, wrote that, even as an orthodox Catholic, he could not stomach one more essay, article, book review, or even conversation about the culture war. He was just plain done with it. I can see what he means, but only up to a point. The sad fact is that the culture war has largely become about condemning the bad rather than celebrating the good. When I saw Elling at the Strathmore Center that St. Patrick’s Day, it wasn’t a sellout. The KC Jazz Club at the Kennedy Center only holds a couple hundred chairs, and while the place was mostly full there were empty seats in front of me. Christians and others who want a healthier culture can complain about Madonna (which I advocate doing loudly and often), but if they leave it at that their efforts will be self-defeating. They must also make an effort to enrich themselves with art and elevate genuine talent.

Buy Kurt Elling’s records. Ask that Starbucks sell Live in Chicago. Wonder why the gatekeepers of our popular culture never feature him on late-night talk shows. You may even ask why conservative magazines, in a permanent kvetch about the popular culture, don’t seem interested in him. And if Elling comes to your town and it’s between him and a Law & Order rerun, pick Elling.

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Mark Judge also wrote Without Jazz, I’d Be Dead for RealClearReligion in 2011.