The Questions: Enduring musical quality
As on his previous albums, Kurt Elling is not content to just entertain his listeners; he wants us to think about the words that are sung and the relationships between texts. His new album, “The Questions” may challenge listeners more than his earlier discs simply due to the wide range of composers, poets and lyricists. Bob Dylan, Rumi, Paul Simon, Johnny Mercer, Sara Teasdale, Oscar Hammerstein II and Elling all play a part in this intriguing recital. Elling delivers these words with intensity, making us believe that every couplet was drawn from his personal experience. Yet, we have all felt these emotions: love, fear, desperation, elation, confusion, redemption, and loneliness. Songs like Simon’s “American Tune”, Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and Peter Gabriel’s “Washing of the Water” speak to those shared feelings, regardless of the musical setting. On these tracks, Elling seems primarily concerned with communicating a message; when he moves into jazz repertoire in the second half of the album, Elling’s delivery becomes more relaxed but the strong messages remain (his performance of the adapted Rumi poem in the midst of Jaco Pastorius’ “A Secret in Three Views” is a marvel of both sensitive lyric interpretation and audacious rhythmic manipulation).
By far, the album’s most mesmerizing performance is of Carla Bley’s “Lawns” (here renamed “Endless Lawns”). Starting with a simple clapped and stomped two-beat rhythm, Elling and flugelhornist Marquis Hill alternate stanzas, with Elling singing of an idyllic outdoor space with stars shining above, and Hill offering lyric improvisations to enhance the mood. The dynamics rise with each new chorus, as it leads to Elling’s interpolation of Teasdale’s “Winter Stars” to an improvised melody. The background drops down to just bass and drums, with sparse piano and guitar fills added as the poetry continues. Although Elling wrote the lyrics to the Bley piece, we can hear that the Teasdale poem was on his mind while he was writing his original words. By the end of the 9-minute track, the dynamics have risen and fallen again before going back to the original two-beat pattern.
Elling’s remarkable band deserves as much credit for the realization of this music as the always compelling vocalist: they include guests Branford Marsalis (soprano and tenor sax), Hill (trumpet) and Joey Calderazzo (piano); Stu Mindeman (piano, organ); John McLean (guitar); Clark Sommers (bass) and Jeff “Tain” Watts (drums). “The Questions” is an album undoubtedly inspired by our current political situation, but its musical quality will endure long after our present troubles are solved.