Jazz singer Kurt Elling has taken the brazen step of composing lyrics to fit Dexter Gordon's solo on his 1976 version of "Body and Soul." The lyric wisely mentions that the experiment could be a train wreck or an insult to the memory of the legendary tenor saxophonist -- a smart move considering the sternness of the jazz police -- but ultimately it points to a larger issue within the genre. Too much of jazz has forgotten how to laugh, how to have fun. And Elling, whose works have always had an air of weightiness, is suddenly one of the few cats willing to help raise a smile.
After making six albums for Blue Note that put him at the top of the class of distinctive male jazz vocalists, Elling has shifted to Concord Records, which will release his "Nightmoves" disc on April 3. Not only is it the most playful album of his career, it's the first one to straddle melodic constructions that would have been considered pop 30 or 40 years ago and don't seem to be used all that much these days. His 70-minute set emphasized the new disc, and already he is remarkably comfortable with the material, twisting certain phrases toward art with a capital "A," but mostly emphasizing his strong suit -- communicating thoughts about love.
In years past, his L.A. club gigs have been attempts to go toe-to-toe with the ambitiousness of his recording projects, and while his distinctive approach to a lyric and burnished timbre have been showcased nicely, there was often a sense that he was pushing against gravity. To ease the tension and bring out balance, Elling has relied on his marvelously lyrical pianist Laurence Hobgood to leaven a mood and, in some cases, provide added technical dexterity.
On the new album and in concert, Elling and his band strike a balance as a whole and operate as a well-tuned, top-notch unit. Elling's voice, shaded toward Sinatra with the baritone edge of fellow Chicagoan Lou Rawls and influenced by the beat-generation syncopation of Mark Murphy and the idiosyncrasy of Abbey Lincoln, is used to draw straight lines on a medley of "My Foolish Heart" and "Nightmoves" that Hobgood can scribble over; on "Tight," the Betty Carter tale of romantic hide-and-seek, they do the opposite.
"Body and Soul" provided the lone launching pad for Elling to display his considerable scatting abilities. Again Hobgood played a crucial role in the execution, creating a rolling effect with the tune's chords and sprinkled-in notes similar to the style played by Gordon's pianists, George Cables and Ronnie Matthews, three decades ago. Historically correct and fresh -- a remarkable feat in modern jazz. Wheeling out the old Guess Who hit "Undun," well, that was cute.