Kurt Elling: Living the Questions

A wide-ranging interview with one of modern jazz's most influential vocalists

Kurt Elling (Photo by Anna Webber c/o Sony Music)

On a frigidly cold night in January, Kurt Elling opened his showcase set at Birdland in New York City by singing the first few verses of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” a cappella.

Oh where have you been my blue-eyed son?

Oh where have you been my darling young one?

Although the choice of that Dylan tune, or any Dylan tune, might seem a stretch for a jazz vocalist, somehow the song and arrangement appropriately encapsulated Elling’s approach to jazz singing: a love of words and poetry, a passion for politics and social issues, and an affinity for drama.

I sat with Elling a month later, during the Jazz Cruise, when the ship was docked in New Orleans for a day and a half. He has become a regular on that week-long festival on the water, where he serves as a de facto artist-in-residence—performing multiple sets with his own group, sitting in with a big band, doing interviews and offering surprises, like an unrehearsed duo performance of a piece from pianist Ted Rosenthal’s upcoming jazz opera, Dear Erich.

Sitting on the back deck of the ship, overlooking the city’s harbor and skyline, Elling talked about his new album, The Questions (OKeh/Sony Masterworks), which was co-produced by Crescent City native Branford Marsalis, with whom Elling has been touring and recording over the last few years. He also discussed their over-the-top Twitter feud, the wisdom he finds in poetry, the challenge of being compassionate in a troubled world and the importance of asking unanswerable questions.  – LEE MERGNER

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JazzTimes: The Questions is a really tuneful and melodic album. Was it a conscious, purposeful thing to have beautiful melodies?

Kurt Elling: I always start from stuff that’s already in the band, and then I always have 10 more lyrics that are waiting for their moment. Then I look at who the musicians are going to be and what’s going to make the most sense out of that—maybe they’ve got a tune, maybe he’s got a tune. In this case, if I’m going to have Joey Calderazzo on a record, I’m not just going to make him play stuff that he didn’t write, because he’s such a great writer. So, OK, let me write a lyric to one of his things.

Which tune did he write?

It’s called “The Enchantress”; it’s the sort of samba one. He recorded it in the past, under the title “The Lonely Swan.” That’s Joey’s beautiful, beautiful composition, and it was for me to write a [lyric]. When Branford and I were touring, his mother passed—and of course my mother is in assisted living now—so that lyric really comes home for us.

I don’t consciously think, “We need more melody!” Unless we’ve done a resolution or something like that, then I’m going to want to balance it from there. But in this case, I felt like I was just trying to get to whatever was the best material for this group. It wasn’t until after we had recorded it and I listened back to things that I realized I’ve been living up to one of my core principles. I came from religious people, very pious people. And here are the answers. I have been going down my road of inquiry and searching. I realized that I am actually living through what Rainer Maria Rilke subscribed, which was to try to live the questions and be humble in the face of all that can’t be understood or articulated. That is so much propulsion for me, from my natural befuddlement at life.

Rilke has been an inspiration in your music going all the way back to your debut album, 1995’s Close Your Eyes. In some ways he named this album. 

Probably his best-known work is a very small volume called Letters to a Young Poet. This teenager in a boarding school started sending his poems [to various writers] and asking for advice, asking, “What do you think?” This book has really been valuable to generations of sophomoric or armchair philosophers like me. In it there are many words of wisdom about relationships, about love, about art, about the reaction of people to art, about growing up to be a person of value. It’s not preachy. It’s extremely sweet in its compassion. The piece [by Rilke] that comes to mind, and I’m paraphrasing now: “Don’t look for the answers to these big questions. Instead, try to live the questions themselves as though they are a great treasure in a room that is forever locked. Live the questions and perhaps, someday, if you give enough dedication and attention to them, you may live your way into an answer.” That sounds very wise and beautiful to me. It’s appropriately humble for a human being. This is why I could never be a minister in a pulpit.

Although, in a way, as a performer with an audience, you’ve got the mic. So you’re not far off from that minister. Have you always been a poetry guy? You’ve used poetry in music, not just in terms of writing poetic lyrics but actually adapting poetry to music. 

I guess so. I grew up with a visceral experience of heightened language because of going to church so much. The liturgy is a form of poetry. It’s a heightened-language experience. You develop a taste for it and an ear for it because one wants to have a heightened experience, and one wants to have the companionship of the mystery. You want to have that magical experience over and over again, where something that’s really beautiful and true and mysterious is said. Then there’s the quiet that’s just after it when you—what do they call that in Japan? Satori? When you get that little moment of enlightenment; when you say, “Aahh!” That’s what the poetry that I love does. It makes your day more beautiful, and more mysterious, and more compelling.

Speaking of poetry, you open the album and your live sets with Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” Why that tune? The lyrics are almost surrealistic—like poetry, I guess.

For me it’s just like out of the headlines: “Guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children.” That’s like Boko Haram right there. It’s all there. “And the pellets of poison are flooding their waters.” I’ve got a near relation who is a starving lawyer, and the reason he’s starving is because he’s been fighting a battle with a mining company up in the Pacific Northwest for the last 30 years because they dumped all their waste into the river, and now the river’s spoiled, and that was the chief source of water for an entire town up by Eureka. And that’s him fighting the fight. That’s just real. And there’s Flint, Michigan. This is just real. And one of the questions right now is “What the fuck is happening to us and what are we going to do?” I wonder if there’s something in human beings that there’s just a death wish. We, as a race, have suicidal tendencies. We want to devour everything and grasp at everything and rule everything. To our own demise.

And to the demise of the world we live in.

Yeah, as the Right likes to say, “The planet will still be here.” And we won’t. The questions are not just, “Does meaning have being? Where is love?” It’s also, “How do we face the challenges of our time? How do I act compassionately toward people who have such a warped and twisted view of what politics is supposed to do and who it’s supposed to serve? How can I be a good citizen? What can I do from my meager platform?”

I posted some stuff online out of anger, and it just brings more anger, from both sides. So then what should I post? Because I don’t want to do nothing. And posting is such a flaccid response to everything, and yet it’s kind of the marketplace of ideas. It’s the reality of how we’re communicating. It’s the town hall or town square. I gotta say something. I gotta post something. It was only in retrospect that I said, “Oh! Well, this is what I’m trying to do. I’m actually just trying to live. This is me, trying to live up to Rilke’s notion of living the questions.” And it’s unideal; it’s a very uncomfortable way to live. And my poor wife has to put up with me.

It’s a unique position, because as a jazz musician you’re always searching for the melody you haven’t played yet. I’m trying to dig deeper into the music that is the most compelling from the greatest of our forefathers and foremothers. The past is where there’s so much wisdom and so much love.

How did you and Branford first get together?

The initial thing was that we would bump into each other at festivals. We were over at the North Sea Jazz Festival and he was in the bar—that’s where you meet as jazz people—and he got up and gave me a huge hug, and he’s like, “I’m making a record with you, man.” I said, “Me?” And then I said, “Man, any day of any week.” And he was serious.

Had he ever done anything with vocalists before?

Well, he did the Buckshot LeFonque project. With me, he was, and is, gracious. He’s been so … really, I get emotional talking about Branford.

Branford Marsalis and Kurt Elling (photo by Palma Kolansky)
Branford Marsalis and Kurt Elling (photo by Palma Kolansky)

I’ve seen you with that band, and they play hard and fast. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a jazz band like that with a vocalist. I have to imagine that it was pretty rough at first, or at least challenging.

I don’t know about rough, no. I definitely wanted to bring my A-game. It’s been a while since I’ve had to open a set with blowing every single time. I’m fortunate, because the earliest guys I was interacting with in a live setting and a professional scene, they were all throw-down: Get up and hit it, and blow and blow and then blow some more. With Von Freeman. With Ed Petersen, his band was incredibly challenging from a new music standpoint. The only guy I ever got a break from in terms of the first note I could sing was Eddie Johnson, where I could get up and I could do a ballad or I could do a slower tempo. But that was because that was the whole vibe of that scene. But all those early experiences, I wanted to figure out how to be in with the cats.

What about your relationship with Branford in the studio, with him as producer?

We worked on it together. We put a Dropbox file together with three times as many tunes as we needed, and I put them in order of my preference. The top 10 were the top 10, and a lot of them were things that I’ve written lyrics for that I hope will see the light of day on the right session. And also just tunes that I like. Some of them didn’t fit; some of them were too this, too that, whatever. We didn’t really hash through stuff so much. It winnowed itself down until we got to the ones that I knew were going to be the right ones.

Branford had some suggestions, and two of them are on the record. One was the Peter Gabriel thing, which I wouldn’t have even known about, called “Washing of the Water.” And the other one is the Leonard Bernstein one, “Lonely Town.” He sent me four or five things, and I’d be like, “Man, I don’t know about this,” and he’s like, “Hey, it’s your record.” Me: “I think this one.” Him: “It’s your record.”

He really led the studio sessions. Bryan [Farina, Elling’s manager] and I came up with the plan based on availability of musicians, so we had to get certain things done on certain days. Joey [Calderazzo] was only in for one day, Marquis [Hill] was only in on one day, so we had to get those things done. Branford would say, “We’ve done the takes. Moving on.” And I’d say, “Man, are you sure?” And he’d be like, “We’re going.”

I really trusted him. If we hadn’t gotten it, sometimes he’d be like, “Well, c’est la vie.” He was definitively in on the mix. He put the drums where he knew they were best, he put the piano, he put things where they belonged. He’s got such a remarkable and diverse career, above and beyond playing and producing his own records and writing compositions.

And the sweetness. He’s so funny. Anybody who’s that smart is going to be so funny. And that Twitter war we got into was so funny. We had so much fun. [Shows tweets on his phone.] And we were standing next to each other when we were writing them. It was so funny because people thought we were really going after each other, and we’re standing next to each other trying to outdo [the other]. We were just doing the dozens, man! I did one about [Branford having] the worst soprano sound since Florence Foster Jenkins [the tone-deaf socialite portrayed by Meryl Streep in 2016]. That was it! Branford was on the floor with that. He’s like, “You gotta push that!” [laughs]

Whose songs from our time will artists be interpreting 30 or 40 years from now?

Paul Simon’s stuff will keep going. Dylan’s stuff will keep going for a while, but I think it will self-select. I expect people are going to continue to do Dave Frishberg tunes. Again, it’ll be self-selecting, because how many people can really do “My Attorney Bernie” and have it work? Though there are “Peel Me a Grape” and “I’m Hip” and “A Little Taste.” I hope that people continue to do Jon Hendricks’ stuff. There certainly is an avid assortment at present, but it’s still fresh in people’s minds. Stevie Wonder for sure. People are always covering Stevie, myself included. I did “Golden Lady.” I think we’ve got to do that on this tour and on the boat here, because we’ve already had a couple requests.

When I saw you in D.C. last year, it was right after Trump got elected and you opened with Jackson Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes.” I never thought of that tune as having that kind of political message before. Are you still doing it?

I put it on the shelf for a minute because we’ve been focusing on the stuff that made the cut. I was like, “Well, how about this, Branford?” And he listened to it and [said], “The song just doesn’t stand up—the structure just doesn’t stand up to the quality. OK?” It’s good to have somebody you can really trust.

Talk about how you adapted the beautiful Jaco Pastorius tune “Three Views of a Secret,” which you turned into “A Secret in Three Views.” What are the legalities of that process?

I try to keep it as close as I can, but legally you’ve got to come up with something. You need to have a different title for a composition that has already been recorded as an instrumental under a certain title. So even with “Minuano (Six Eight)” [by Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays], we had to do “Minuano (vocal version).” You’ve got to have some other way to designate it so that ASCAP or BMI can keep the royalties stuff straight. You definitely have to clear it to record it. Either you have to get [the clearance] from the publisher or from the artist him or herself. But we always go through channels. Keith Jarrett is the only guy that turned me down. But it’s cool—it was because I took the theme in another direction than what he had in mind for the thing.

All songwriters get the question “What came first, the music or the lyrics?” It’s easier with you, with songs like “A Secret in Three Views.”

Yes, the music definitely came first. And thank God there’s this great version with Wayne [Shorter] playing the melody, because then it’s the paraphrase of the melody. And then you get all the Wayne-ish stuff, which is so beautiful and so important. I hadn’t done Jaco before. I did Pat [Metheny], I hit with Yellowjackets, but I don’t think I’ve written a lyric to a Jaco tune. You’ve got to have a story to tell. I went back to [the 13th-century mystic] Rumi because, again, you’re asking questions. It’s the secret—the three ways of looking at a secret, or three or more. I just tried to steep myself in those ideas. I think it’s kind of self-explanatory, if you read the lyric, what it’s about and where it’s coming from and what it’s trying to say. It’s just a pleasure to sing it. And it makes people really happy, which I like.

Who did the arrangement of “Skylark” that closes the album?

The band and I came up with that over years of touring. I would just toss it to [guitarist] John [McLean] and he would come up with some intro. We didn’t ever really arrange it; we just played it a million times, which is the best way. John arranged “I Have Dreamed,” which also worked out great, and then Branford takes that gorgeous solo on it. That’s fantastic. That’s what makes that shit go. All I’ve got to do is sing then.

Your pianist Stu Mindeman is a bit of a secret weapon.

He’s really smart, and he’s very, very collaborative. If I need to edit something or whatever, he’d be like, “Yeah, OK, let’s try that.” It’s great. He wrote the melody and all the music for “A Happy Thought.” I just gave him the Franz Wright poem and I said, “Man, what do you think of this?” And he’s like, “I can do that.” You should check out some of his records, because he did a whole thing with Langston Hughes’ poetry [2014’s In Your Waking Eyes]. He’s a gifted little [fellow] in his late 20s. And Stu’s got a really cool backstory, too, because he spent many years in South America growing up. It’s not even Brazilian; it’s like Chile and Peru and stuff—he can name all these different rhythms.

You’ve got to have the right assortment. As Branford says, “You don’t need the best players in the world, you just need the right players.” And I need the right guys to play the thing that I want to do. And you have to get on the plane together and get off the plane together. That’s one of the things about Branford’s group that’s so fantastic, that camaraderie.

Preview, buy or download songs from the album The Questions by Kurt Elling on iTunes.

Read Christopher Loudon’s recommendation for five essential albums by Kurt Elling