Nightmoves (Concord Jazz)
Released April 3, 2007
Grammy Nominee for Best Jazz Vocal Album 2008
On Nightmoves, his brilliant debut for Concord Records and seventh outing overall, Elling artfully blends his rich baritone voice with signature scatting and virtuosic vocalese in a wide-ranging repertoire of tunes associated with such greats as Frank Sinatra, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Irving Berlin, Betty Carter, Duke Ellington, Dexter Gordon and Keith Jarrett. His most ambitious undertaking to date, it features his working trio of bassist Rob Amster, drummer Willie Jones III and longtime creative partner, pianist-arranger Laurence Hobgood, along with such special guests as The Escher String Quartet, bassist Christian McBride, Yellowjackets tenor saxophonist Bob Mintzer, guitarist Guilherme Monterio, keyboardist Rob Mounsey and harmonica virtuosos Howard Levy and Gregoire Maret.
Elling and company skillfully shift the mood throughout the program from seductive bossa novas (Michael Franks’ “Nightmoves” and Alan Pasqua’s “And We Will Fly”) to unabashed swingers (Betty Carter’s “Tight”), from gorgeous ballads (“Where Are You?”) to highly personal takes on Sinatra (“In The Wee Small Hour”) and Ellingtonia (“I Like The Sunrise”) to a stirring vocalese interpretation of the jazz classic “Body And Soul” with new lyrics written by Kurt for this session.
Considered one of the foremost contemporary voices in the art of vocalese — the act of putting words to improvised solos of jazz artists — Elling has set words to solos by Wayne Shorter, Keith Jarrett, Dexter Gordon and Pat Metheny; often incorporating images and references from writers such as Rainer Maria Rilke, Jalal al-Din Rumi, Pablo Neruda and Beat poets Jack Kerouac and Kenneth Rexroth into his work. On Nightmoves, Elling once again relies on literary references for for a couple of tunes. “The Sleepers” is a musical setting written by pianist-arranger Fred Hersch for a Walt Whitman poem while “The Waking” is an intimate bass-voice duet set to a 1953 poem by Theodore Roethke.
Elsewhere on Nightmoves, Elling puts his distinctive stamp on a soulful version of The Guess Who’s 1969 pop hit “Undun” while also tackling Betty Carter’s “Tight” with requisite hipness. Hobgood’s arrangement of “Change Partners/If You Never Come To Me” successfully mergers an Amercian classic onto a classic bossa nova.
Another creative medley, “Leaving Again/In The Wee Small Hours,” makes an unlikely pairing of Keith Jarrett and Frank Sinatra. Says Elling, “‘Leaving Again’ is a Keith Jarrett improvisation that I transcribed and wrote a lyric for. It something from the live boxed set that he did with the trio (1994’s Keith Jarrett At The Blue Note: The Complete Recordings on ECM). With his usual ingenuity and grace Keith essentially improvised a new verse for ‘Wee Small Hours.’ It gave me as a lyricist an opportunity to tell a different story with the piece so that instead of it being a lament about having lost someone, it’s more about living through the pain of knowing and having love but not having that someone there to share it. That’s part of the jazz thing when you do a standard; you try to find a new shade of meaning or frame it in such a way that it sounds brand new. It definitely helps that I am so interested in writing.”
The alluring “And We Will Fly” is a soulful interpretation of a piece by West Coast pianist Alan Pasqua, who originally recorded it on his 2005 trio release My New Old Friend (Cryptogramophone) with drummer Peter Erskine and bassist Derek Oles. “This particular tune just jumped out at me right away but to add a lyric presented a real challenge. I had to figure out how to maintain the delicacy of the piece while also making it clearly a singer’s thing. I needed to soften my approach to delivery in order to maintain the spirit of the original while not getting too constricted by it.”
The seductive “Nightmoves” is a Michael Franks tune that Elling remembered from his college years. “Some of his stuff always just stuck with me because it’s real hip and intelligent,” he says. “He’s a good writer. He keeps everything pretty simple on the melodic front but, boy, he’s got some good lyrics in him.
“Where Are You” is a vocalese number written by Elling based on Dexter Gordon’s recording of the piece for his 1962 Blue Note recording, Go. Hobgood’s string arrangement here adds a lush element to this gorgeous ballad. And “The Sleepers” is a new incarnation of the Fred Hersch piece that Elling previously sang on Hersch’s 2005 Palmetto recording Leaves of Grass and subsequently performed live as part of 10-piece chamber ensemble at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall in New York City.
The twilight-through-dawn theme that permeates Nightmoves — from the opening title track to the closing “I Like The Sunrise — is a leitmotif throughout much of Elling’s work. “The night really fascinates me,” he says. “The things that happen in the night and the comfort that one can have being shrouded in darkness, in stillness, listening to music and pondering and considering…that has always intrigued me.
The dusk-to-dawn theme climaxes with his noble rendition of “I Like The Sunrise,” an Ellington composition that has rarely been covered. “I’m not sure why it hasn’t been played more because it’s just pure, dignified Duke spirit,” says Kurt. “The natural exuberance that he displayed throughout his life for living and for being a musician really shines through Duke’s writing here.
Elling’s vocalese version of this obscure Ellington piece is based on Von Freeman’s improvised melody of the song from the tenor saxophonist’s 2002 recording The Improvisor on Premonition Records, while the lyrics are adapted from a poem by the 13th century Persian poet Jelaluddin Balkhi (also known as Rumi). “Von did a duet with pianist Jason Moran on this tune a few years ago and it was the first time I had heard the piece. I fell in love with it right away, not only because of Duke’s writing but also because Von is just preaching the word in that solo. And the only person whose writing I could think of that approached that level of ecstatic singing was this 13th century mystic poet named Rumi. I did some adapting of Coleman Barks’ great translation of his poem ‘Where Everything Is Music.’ Some of the lines fit exactly with what Von was playing and some had to be moved around a bit to keep the meaning but fit what Von was saying. But that’s really the three rivers that sourced that piece — 20th century Ellington, 13th century Rumi and 21st century Vonski. And it all comes together for me.”
Regarding his inventive take on the jazz classic “Body and Soul,” Elling says, “I had wanted to do a vocalese version of that for a decade or more but it’s one of those things that I just waited on until the right inspiration and the right reason to write it came along. And when it finally came, it came like gangbusters. Basically, I’m singing a love song to my daughter Luiza. It’s something that I wrote out of respect for the original and shaded by the inspiration of having Luiza in my life. She has changed me – for the better.” It is ultimately this transition – from eros to agape, from a possessive desire to a less calculating and more self-giving kind of love – that forms the essence of Nightmoves. It is a personal story of healing told through music, and it resonates with anyone who has gone on a quest for true love.
1. Nightmoves (Michael Franks) 4:23
2. Tight (Betty Carter) 2:55
3. Change Partners/If You Never Come to Me (Irving Berlin / Luis Chaves DeOliveira / Ray Gilbert / Antônio Carlos Jobim) 7:38
4. Undun (Randy Bachman) 5:10
5. Where Are You, My Love? (Harold Adamson / Jimmy McHugh) 5:27
6. And We Will Fly (Kurt Elling / Phil Galdston / Alan Pasqua) 4:23
7. Luiza (Kurt Elling / Antônio Carlos Jobim) 4:16
8. The Waking (Rob Amster / Kurt Elling / Theodore Roethke) 4:13
9. The Sleepers 5:31
10. Leaving Again/In the Wee Small Hours (Kurt Elling / Bob Hilliard / Keith Jarrett) 5:04
11. A New Body and Soul (Frank Eyton / Edward Heyman / Robert Sour) 10:20
12. I Like the Sunrise (Duke Ellington) 6:53
13. A New Body and Soul Live (Frank Eyton / Edward Heyman / Robert Sour) 11:44
Kurt Elling: vocals
Laurence Hobgood: piano
Rob Amster: bass (5, 7, 8, 11, 13)
Willie Jones III: drums & percussion
Christian McBride: bass (1-4, 6, 10)
Rob Mounsey: electric piano, keyboards (1, 4, 6)
Bob Mintzer: tenor saxophone (1, 4)
Guiherme Monteiro: guitar (3, 6)
Howard Levy: harmonica (3)
The Escher String Quartet: strings (5, 8, 12)
Gregoire Maret: harmonica (6)
Romero Lubambo: guitar (12)
Recorded October 2006, at Avatar Studios, New York, NY, and HINGE, Chicago, IL
Producer: Joe Chiccarelli, Kurt Elling
Co-producer: Laurence Hobgood
Executive-Producer: Chris Dunn (5), Mary Ann Topper
If the verbiage generated by a release is proportionate to its profitability, Kurt Elling must be firmly ensconced in the black. Nightmoves has already garnered volumes of ink (All Music Guidedevotes three times more space to it than Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue). Perhaps equally impressive testimony to Elling’s eminence is that he can afford to take four years between albums and, like Sinatra in the 1950s, keep his Down Beat poll-winning streak as top male jazz vocalist intact. Listeners by now know the wait will be worth it, and again Elling doesn’t disappoint.
The album as a whole is a richly communicative labor of love, featuring a stunning program, stellar performances, and a performer in sterling voice. Although much has been written about Elling’s adaptation of poets like Rumi and Roethke, in music the thought, emotion and wordsmithery of a Lorenz Hart or Cole Porter are hard to beat. Elling’s strong suit is musical storytelling. And if he doesn’t draw his primary inspiration from Sinatra, he derives the same from the Chairman’s instrumental equivalent, tenor giant Dexter Gordon.
No saxophonist improvised with more authority, drama and purposeful commitment: every note is a dagger aimed at the listener’s heart, requiring immediate and urgent attention. Moreover, Gordon was so attracted to song lyrics that he frequently recited them in total from memory before performing a tune. Small wonder that Gordon derived inspiration from Sinatra story-pieces like “Where Are You and “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry (Go, 1962). Even less surprisingly, Elling’s two most ambitious adaptations—”Tanya (The Messenger, 1997) and “A New Body and Soul —are vocalizations of Gordon improvisations. What is surprising is that every tenor player’s Excalibur, “Body and Soul, is currently listed as the most recorded song of all time—despite lyrics as cumbersome as they are corny, so Elling’s rewording comes as welcome relief. The vocalist elected to go to a 1976 performance (Homecoming) and, while missing some of the wry humor of Gordon’s playing, captures the drama and passion. But the same excitement transforms Ellington’s haunting vesper “I Like the Sunrise” from the elegiac into the evangelical, with the addition of Rumi’s poetry to Mitchell Parish’s simple, noble lyric creating an overwrought pastiche. At least the vocalist offers listeners familiar with the rich autumnal colors of the Sinatra-Ellington performance (Francis A. & Edward K., 1967) a clear-cut alternative.
Regrettably, the CD does not include a “bonus track”—a spirited, marvelous duet between Elling and John Pizzarelli. (Was it feared today’s audience would miss the allusion to an American movie classic and its three music giants? That the extra track would seem “lightweight” after Roethke and Rumi?) Thankfully, it can be downloaded at various sites but should be included for the price. Cole Porter’s “Did You Evah” is no throwaway number, and Elling/Pizzarelli catch the élan of the original Crosby/Sinatra version (from High Society). The unforced dialog, the humorous “trash talk, the effortless harmonizing, the quick adjustments to tempo changes—it’s hip and exhilarating, and it’s not easy to do nor any the less impressive for not meeting the haute-couture requirements of some listeners.
Samuel Chell (All About Jazz)