Kurt Elling remains the finest contemporary male jazz singer – I’ve been a fan across most of the last 20 years. It’s his voice, of course. The warmth. The depth. The heart. But it’s also the repertoire – and maybe those same descriptors can be applied, but it’s certainly the breadth, the thought that goes into choosing – and the reasons behind selections. He can include original material and it’s as important as the covers or standards. But it’s really about the theme he states and shapes across an album. The way he makes a book or movie out of songs. And then sings them true.
His latest is called The Questions and maybe it provides solace for some in this Trump era – Elling revisits Paul Simon’s exquisite American Tune (which he covered some five years ago on a Broadway-inspired set of standards and covers) he lines up songs by Peter Gabriel (Washing of the Water) and Carla Bley (Lawns) and is just as happy giving the nod to poets Wallace Stevens and 13th Century philosopher Rumi as to Bob Dylan (a version of A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall kicks off this latest set and shows that Patti Smith’s stunning recent tribute isn’t the only great new rendition of this Dylan signpost).
There’s wonderful playing across the album – including guest turns from reliable hands (Branford Marsalis, Joey Calderazzo) – and slowly, subtly, we feel the build of these songs, of what they mean when placed and spaced in this way. And this is the clever-trick that’s inside all Elling albums, never threatening to bore or topple over into pretentiousness, merely showing the towers of strength he finds – and gives – in collecting and shaping sets of songs.
He’s never going to let you down. But here, asking Questions, questions of this age – as Paul Simon (timelessly) puts it –
I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
Or driven to its knees
Oh, but it’s all right, it’s all right
For lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road
We’re traveling on
I wonder what went wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what’s gone wrong
– Elling has, arguably, never been better. My hope is that that’s really something. His knowledge and skills allow him to know that he is.
Another masterpiece from truly one of the greats in modern music. Assembled, as always, from parts of music’s recent past. Sometimes forgotten, here reborn, re-shaped, remembered anew.
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