Kurt Elling ‘The Questions’ (Okeh/Sony) 4/5

While recently in conversation with Sean Rafferty on BBC Radio 3, singer Kurt Elling talked about his musical inspirations and this included his love of poetry alongside the great American songbook and vocalese practitioners who skilfully took jazz instrumentals and added their own witty lyrics. On this latest recording, once more featuring Branford Marsalis and band members, Elling has used all these influences to his advantage and from this rich palette has conjured up an album that has a little of something for everyone, even if long-time fans might prefer the more avant-garde to the straight ahead standards. Two classic instrumentals are tackled with a new set of lyrics, the first of which will be familiar to fans of bassist and all round musical genius, Jaco Pastorius. His, ‘A Secret In Three Views’, receives an inventive re-working as does Carla Bley’s, ‘Endless Lawns’. A love of the classic standards permeates the work of Kurt Elling and this time round the lovely, ‘I Have Dreamed’, by Rodgers and Hammerstein features a fitting solo from Branford Marsalis, while keyboardist Stu Mindeman stretches out on the Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer opus, ‘Skylark’, that closes out the album in a gentle mood. Perhaps, most surprising is the inclusion of slightly more contemporary pop/rock songwriters with a trio of compositions. The pick of the bunch is probably ‘American Tune’ by Paul Simon that was a feature of the latter’s 1973 recording, ‘A Rhymin’ Mr. Simon’, while for a left-field choice, Peter Gabriel’s ‘Washing Of The Water’, is truly unexpected. Opening up the album, Dylan’s ‘A Hard Rain Is Gonna Fall’, may be better served in a blues idiom. Poetry is weaved into the mix on the Carla Bley composition and an excerpt from Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘From Letters To A Young Poet’, is inserted into the inner sleeve notes. A fine band that has appearances from Marquis Hill on trumpet and flugelhorn, Joey Calderazzo on piano, and for a touch of Chicago, guitarist John McLean, who has regularly performed with another jazz a singer from the Windy City, Patricia Barber. In general, a praiseworthy effort from one of the most accomplished singers around. A live recording from the Green Mill would be an ideal follow up at some stage.

Tim Stenhouse