Sunday, September 16, 2007

Kurt Elling’s “Nightmoves”: CD Review

In which Jazz Police/JazzINK writer Andrea Canter and I talk about a new CD by a mutual favorite. Originally posted on both JazzINK and Jazz Police.

Released in 2007, Nightmoves was Elling's 7th CD and his first for Concord. It's a dusk-to-dawn progression that begins with the title rack and ends with Duke Ellington's "I Like the Sunrise."

Personnel: Kurt Elling, vocals; his working trio: pianist-arranger Laurence Hobgood, Rob Amster (bass), Willie Jones III (drums); guests Christian McBride (bass), Bob Mintzer (tenor saxophone), Guilherme Monteiro (guitar), Rob Mounsey (keyboards), Howard Levy (harmonica), Grégoire Maret (harmonica), Escher String Quartet

PLE: The DownBeat Critics' Poll recently named Elling Top Male Vocalist of the Year for the seventh year straight. He just keeps getting better. Nightmoves is a terrific CD.

ASC: The sequence of tracks juxtaposes a wide range of music that, with lesser artists, would sound like a mishmash of R&B, Brazilian, liturgical, and so on, but Kurt makes it all a unified whole that works. When I listen to this CD, I think, “Who else would be at the top of the DownBeat poll?”

PLE: It’s a fun and interesting collection of songs: “Nightmoves” by Michael Frank, who also wrote “Popsicle Toes.” Betty Carter’s “Tight.” Kurt sings the first few bars like he’s channeling Carter, with broad vowels.

ASC: After those first big chords from Laurence Hobgood. You can tell these guys have been collaborating for years. I love Kurt’s staggered rhythm in the opening verse, then Laurence kicks in a swinging interlude.

PLE: An interlude by Laurence is always a good thing…followed here by some tasty scatting. Nice back-and-forth with Kurt and Laurence; Laurence plays a descending phrase, and Kurt follows by scatting the same notes—ba-da-da-da-da-ro.

ASC: It’s like he possesses a unique horn that sputters before he goes back into the lyric. Very cool and very Elling! There’s surprisingly little scatting on this whole recording, considering what he does in live performances. So maybe this will appeal to all those people who hate scatting, who accuse singers such as Elling as obscuring the lyric.

PLE: I know people who hate scatting. They think it means a singer is being lazy, or has forgotten the words.

ASC: It’s a rigid, conservative view of how the human voice should be used. Do those same people think that instrumentalists shouldn’t improvise? I know some singers who aren’t comfortable scatting themselves and seem a bit intimidated by those who do. It probably takes a lot of self-confidence to try it. But it can be fun, too—I saw Vicky Mountain [Minneapolis-based singer and educator] do a mini-workshop where she had about 30 nonmusicians standing up in a circle and doing a collective scat—each “bop-a-do-ing” just a couple notes and passing it on. It was fun and very freeing.

PLE: Self-confidence is something Kurt Elling has in spades. “The Waking,” a duet with Rob Amster, is full of vocal leaps and perfect two-footed landings, and the part where he turns the word “sleep” into a 20-second aria, dipping way down and rising up and up to a high note he holds—goosebumps.

ASC: You have to have such control of your voice, your pitch, to duet with a bassist, who’s playing only a counterpoint line, not the melody…and yes, Kurt has all that. Rob Amster is also playing percussion, with an occasional well-placed slap on the bass. He’s such a brilliant musician, it sometimes sounds like there are two instruments at work.

PLE: So beautiful, and I love that Kurt used a Theodore Roethke poem as his lyric. When Liane Hansen interviewed Kurt for NPR, she asked, “Do you often go to literary references for inspiration?” He said, “Yeah, I do. It’s called stealing from the rich.”

ASC: “Sleepers,” the Fred Hersch piece with Walt Whitman’s words, sounds like it belongs on stage at Orchestra Hall with a symphony, probably because of the strings. Or like something Maria Schneider would orchestrate. Has she recorded anything with voice as a significant component? Maybe Kurt Elling could partner with her. Kurt’s already teamed with Hersch (one of my favorite pianists) on the Leaves of Grass project [Palmetto, 2005] with an instrumental octet and another fine vocalist, Kate McGarry. Why not the Maria Schneider Orchestra?

PLE: I can’t listen to “Sleepers” without bursting into tears. When I heard Kurt sing it at the Dakota, I had to hide behind a menu. Whitman’s words are so lovely, and Kurt sings them with such tenderness.

ASC: When we heard him sing “Leaving Again/In the Wee Small Hours” at Birdland in January 2006, it really grabbed me. So I am really pleased to see it recorded here.

PLE: All in all, this is a very romantic CD. Late night, candlelight. With an awful lot of Sinatra connections.

ASC: I hear a little Frank Sinatra in him, more so here than I had realized before. But then every effective male vocalist has a little Sinatra inside!

PLE: He sings three Sinatra songs on this CD—four if you count “Change Partners/If You Never Come to Me” as two. Sinatra also sang “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” and “Where Are You?” Kurt puts his own vocalese spin on both of those, adding and changing lyrics.

ASC: When I first heard it, I thought he had just written a really long prologue to “Wee Small Hours,” which by itself is a gorgeous ballad. I didn’t realize the intro was a Keith Jarrett tune. Kurt gives it so much more meaning with this pairing.

PLE: When Jarrett plays it on his Blue Note set [Keith Jarrett at the Blue Note: The Complete Recordings, ECM, 1994], it’s an improvised lead-in to “Wee Small Hours.” Kurt turns it into a reason to sing that song, a first-person explanation of the sadness and wistfulness it expresses…. What about “Undun”? We heard that at Birdland, too. It was a surprise then and it still is, though I’ve seen the original song described as “quasi-jazz,” so maybe it’s not such a stretch. Especially with Mintzer opening on saxophone. And Kurt swings it.

ASC: That song makes me think that if Kurt wanted to, he could bring some dignity to smooth jazz. Let’s hope he doesn’t want to. Here he did what you’d expect a jazz musician to do: slowed down the original tempo, changed the rhythm, and gave it a totally different emotional feel. And Mintzer is a perfect foil on this track—smooth but with enough bite to steer clear of Kenny G!

PLE: It’s not quasi-jazz any longer…. The tour-de-force track, of course, is “A New Body and Soul.” To me, it’s right up there with “Resolution” from Man in the Air [Blue Note, 2003], Kurt’s vocalese based on the Coltrane tune. These long pieces are opportunities for Kurt to go every which way with his lyrics, bringing in beat poetry and mythology and stars wheeling in the heavens and whatever else comes into his hyperactive mind.

ASC: And I remember being so taken with Coltrane’s “Resolution” when we heard it last year at Birdland. His original lyric seems so perfect that I forgot it was not the Billie Holiday version! I think she would approve of the changes. I need to go back and listen to Dexter Gordon’s rendition, which he used as the foundation… We haven’t mentioned the fabulous Willie Jones III on drums, but here in particular he adds some brilliant rolls and cymbal work. What’s really cool is that this tune, despite the very modern approach to the vocal, swings all the way.

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