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.…read more
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.
Release date: April 3, 2007
[ click here for printable Nightmoves bio ]
Music by by Jimmy McHugh
Lyric by Kurt Elling, based on Dexter Gordon's phrasing of the original melody from his 1962 recording, "Go".
Where is your heart, my love? I can't believe you'd forget.
I haven't finished with love yet, and I'm wondering where – where can you be?
I still see your smile in my memories and photographs
Pictures of hand holding laughter
I guess there's more that you're after – but you're teaching my songs to cry
Making love with you was easy – it was a thrill
And I guess that's how it goes – hearts break every day
I just thought you'd go just a bit more gently.
And I hoped you'd pick up the telephone if I called.
My angel, where can you be? You have flown out –
Out of time, out of love, out of my arms – leaving me with a heart full of empty
So where – baby where – are you?
And now – starting now and my whole life through must I go on just pretending
Where is my happy ending? All I wanted to play from long ago was your true love Romeo
I need you baby, but darling where, baby, where are you?
Music by Alan Pasqua
Lyric by Kurt Elling and Phil Galdston
Love / let's catch the wind
An evening breath / on naked skin
Out where the sun / meets the Monterey Sea
A dream / that's as real as can be
On the way / the day will fade
The blue will shade / a touch of jade
And make a sight / very few ever see
Tonight / when the sky meets the sea . . .
We can glide / though ocean sky
And cover waves / with ocean eyes
Out where the moon / meets the wondering sea
A dream / that's as real as can be . . .
And the sea will kiss the sky
And we will fly
And we will fly
Music improvised by Keith Jarrett
Lyric by Kurt Elling, based on Keith Jarrett's untitled improvisation from his 1994 trio recording, "At The Blue Note"
Sleeping / Waking / Crying / Leaving again / It's morning / I have to go
Though every night pretends / begins in quiet hoping that it never ends / they're always ending again / breaking another dream / a dream where we could breathe in the heavy curtained prairie air of summer night / watching lightning over wheat fields through a bedroom window / And the prairie gently rose up with a feeling and embraced us
And when morning found us I pulled you to me and promised to stay
But that was the night / and now day
In the we small hours of the morning / while the whole wide world is fast asleep
You lie awake and think about the girl / and never ever think of counting sheep
And when your lonely heart has learned its lesson / you'd be hers if only she would call
For in the wee small hours of the morning / that's the time you miss her most of all
Music by Duke Ellington
Original Lyric by Mitchell Parrish
Vocalese Lyric by Kurt Elling based on Von Freeman's improvised melody from Freeman's 2002 recording, "The Improvisor".
The lyric adapts the words of the 13th century poet Jelaluddin Balkhi, or Rumi, as translated by Coleman Barks.
I like the sunrise / 'cause it brings a new day
I like a new day / it brings new hope they say
I like the sunrise / blazing in the new sky
Nighttime is weary / oh, and so am I
Every evening I wish upon a star that my brand new bright tomorrow isn't very far
When the heavy blue curtain of night is raised up high / clear out of sight
Then I like the sunrise / so heavenly to see
I like the sunrise / I hope it likes poor me
Don't worry about saving this music / or be scared if the singing ends
or the piano breaks a string / for we have fallen to a place where everything is
music and singing / everything is recovered and new / ever new and musical
and even if the whole world's harp should burn up / there would still be hidden there
the spirit of song there to linger on / and even if a candle's blown out by wind the fire smolders on in an ember and then sparks again / the singing is a drop / just a drop in oceans of seas / grace keeps it moving through bodies like these
and the sound of a life sends an echoing out / the poem sings willingly in each newborn's crying shout / but it's growing slowly / and keeps many secrets / stop the words and listen / feel the echo of it starting / open a space in the center of your beating heart
and let spirits fly in and out
Music by Edward Heyman, Robert Sour, Frank Eyton, Johnny Green
New Lyric by Kurt Elling, based on Dexter Gordon's improvised melody from Gordon's 1976 recording, "Homecoming - Live At The Village Vanguard".
This complete lyric as performed live at the Kennedy Center, November 2006.
My heart was misty-hued and lonely / from missing you
Without you near-around me / man, was I blue!
My eyes would show what I could not say / while you were away
Even so, my tears would flow in endless, hopeless replay
Love was always only hearsay. Yet,
I'd drift around town with downcast dreams in my pockets
Stumbling every step
Trying to motion my frozen feelings in thick-set flop sweats
My mind would echo with treacherous, senseless empty
My head was inept
Time was a pathway filled with regret.
Life was just a trial of wanting / things that are true now
Now it's something I can say aloud –
Now that I know we two can make life anew
& come shining through
I'll make us a space / inasmuch as love can do
A place safe from thunders / made by fearlessness and wonders
Now that love has come / now that I have found you
I watch the sun rise on you / and on the hour you wake
Not knowing waking from dreaming or remembering
Songs I sing you then / I hope you will hear
If ever you feel fear or coming to an end.
Love is the only thing to balance fearing
Loving the deepest depths appearing.
Waiting too long for a sign you would come was what
nearly killed the spirit in the house within me
and when you appeared you brought an answer after praying
like a sailor sighting landfall on horizons of green
or sunrise / after endless nights of burning scenes
or having sense be restored to me.
Finally the music has a reason to be singing.
Hearing voices / calling out of every corner of the city
Glittering pretty / but it seemed like empty pity here
Chasing them / feeling a stinging
searching to find a lasting thing
but always / following whatever was flashing
people thought I had the mentality of a shambles
or a house deserted
I remember stories of Orpheus and his love ruinous / Euridice
Spirited away / on their wedding day
bitten by a snake upon the way / and Euridice had to stay
in under-day – SAD!
Just as bad / Orphie had / to stay up and lay up with us here / but without her.
Can you just imagine / living without it /
love that was destined to perfect / everything that was imperfect
but Orpheus went & played songs for the man
jamming a plan
sounding a span
taking a stand
burning in sand
fanning the legend of the man who playing music
made the sun to stand
and sad though the ending was / I can feel it 'cause
I would do the same for you, 'Cause
Knowing what we live is part of history
A myst'ry philosophic asked a thousand years ago
Living after living spent in killing or in giving or unwilling
Under-fulfilling – a cosmic freak show
And in all that Shiva takes in closing one massive eye
Darkening sight and sky
Hundreds of lifetimes we must try / hoping to break the cycle
And enter heaven's eye
But heaven's here / it comes clear
When loving is living & understanding giving / power
Wonder when we'll get together or if life's a broken song
Just because we're so headstrong
And we'll never get along /
It seems like the throng meanders along
But just as sad as just as sappy just as angry just as scared as sad
You'd think we'd be happy just to be straight-standing
On the earth every new date
Just to breathe in the air and to love every day away
We're given a life to try all our breath to mend the tears over the world where it is clear the world is broken.
But still the suffering and terrors go on
& every time I think we may be coming to the brink / the glue on
something pushes us / and down we fall to shatter in pieces
And that's why our teachers teach "The Itsy Bitsy Spider"
to the smallest ones:
We need a fight song to keep us moving along
I should've sung it when thinking you gone.
You weren't lost / you were coming
I'll teach you / I hope to
Give you love that shows you wonders that only love can show
And more than you'll ever know / I do love you so.
You have got a light living in you / in with and through you
& That's what a father's love should teach you.
My life a heaven you are making / you have got me in the bag
You know I'm yours for taking home or for forsaking
I'll . . . give my life up to make sure / you're lacking nothing
That's the gist of it.
You're the north, south, west and Eden east of it all
(I'm least of it all)
How come was I / Pie in the sky / more do or die /
sighing a cry / never-a-life: / high?
I hope someday you will see just what I mean
To take on / such a class / ic and write / something mass /
-ive without / seeming spastic when I sing the song
Or seem freaky
When I mean only to take what could sound so old-creaky
And make a marvel / as a gift to you
And, in such a small way /
Pay tribute to a man whose lavish gift gave birth to such melodies as this one
(& that was Mister Dexter Gordon)
and so my baby then perhaps (then) you will realize
I have found loving
Thanks for listening.