The Questions: Lyrical, ruminative, beautiful music

Continuing the fruitful creative partnership that began with 2016’s Upward Spiral, vocalist Kurt Elling once again pairs with saxophonist Branford Marsalis for the lyrical, ruminative 2018 effort The Questions. Joining them are pianist Joey Calderazzo, drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, guitarist John McLean, pianist Stu Mindeman, bassist Clark Sommers, and trumpeter Marquis Hill.
As the title implies, the album finds Elling in deeply contemplative mood, delving into songs rife with existential themes of human suffering, and the hope for a better world. While that may sound like a serious-minded slog, it never gets bogged down. Rather, this is a well-curated set of songs, done in Elling’s usual sophisticated, literate, and uplifting style. Instead of playing standards here (though the album ends on an inspired reading of Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer’s “Skylark”), Elling and Marsalis (who also produced) move toward songs that are further afield of the jazz tradition.

There is a poetic quality to many of the song choices that reflect Elling’s longstanding love of spoken word, beginning with his soulful opening rendition of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s-a-Gonna Fall.” Moving from a spare, soulful a cappella intro to a wave-like full-band arrangement, the song works to set the album’s overall tone of thoughtful, existential questioning. Similarly engaging are his takes on Paul Simon’s “American Song” and his subdued, gospel-inflected version of Peter Gabriel’s “Washing of the Water.”

As with many of his past albums, he also adds his own literary spin to several pieces, including taking Carla Bley’s sweetly attenuated piece “Lawns” and combining it with his own lyrics, and a poem by writer Sara Teasdale, turning it into “Endless Lawns.” Similarly, he adds lyrics to Jaco Pastorius’ instrumental “Three Views of a Secret,” drawing inspiration from the work of 13th Century poet Rumi and transforming the song into his own “A Secret in Three Views.”

Musically, while the core of The Questions sounds like an acoustic jazz album, the overall sound is much more of a hybrid, weaving in elements of contemporary folk, classical, Latin, and even new age. That said, there are certainly stellar bits of improvisation, including a warm, harmonic flügelhorn solo from Hill on “Lonely Town,” and a spiraling soprano sax section from Marsalis on “I Have Dreamed.” Ultimately, all of this works to frame Elling’s textured, highly resonant vocals and heartfelt message. As he sings on “Skylark,” “Haven’t you heard the music in the night? Beautiful music.”

Four stars: * * * *