Kurt Elling: Nightmoves (2007)
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 Guide devotes 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 timedespite 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 changesit'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.
Track Listing: Nightmoves; Tight; Change Partners/If You Never Come to Me; Undun; Where Are You, My Love; And We Will Fly; The Waking; The Sleepers; Leaving Again/In The Wee Small Hours; A New Body And Soul; I Like the Sunrise.
Personnel: Kurt Elling: vocals; Laurence Hobgood: piano; Willie Jones, III: drums; Christian McBride: bass (1-4, 6,1 0); Rob Amster: bass (5, 7, 8, 11); Rob Mounsey: electric piano, keyboards (1, 4, 6); Guilherme Monteiro: guitar (3,6); Bob Mintzer: tenor sax (1); Howard Levy: harmonica (3); Gregoire Maret: harmonica (6); The Escher String Quartet (5, 8).