There was a time when a little bit of Kurt Elling went a long way. The insanely talented singer always seemed to balance precariously on the gossamer between genius and schmaltz, but Elling always had a knack for pulling the reins tight just when listeners were ready to cringe. Most of the time. Restraint, or knowing when to utilize it, seemed to be one of Elling's shortcomings in the past.
With his latest release, Nightmoves (Concord Records), Elling finally utilizes that restraint over eleven tracks, to devastating effect. In the process, Nightmoves evokes comparisons to Frank Sinatra's concept records with Nelson Riddle and, to our ears, Sam Cooke's brilliant Night Beat, which conjures a similar setting of loose singing during the futility of the last call hookup, a smoky bar, and one more bourbon before the lights come up, with no where to go afterward. But where Cooke recorded Night Beat as a rough, bluesy response to critics who thought his pop singles were too polished, Elling handles the songs on Nightmoves like well-rehearsed gems determined to gain the attention of an apathetic audience while playing for tips and a flat fee at some hotel bar. Elling found himself at a crossroads in the four years between his final Blue Note Records release, Man in the Air, and Nightmoves. With the success of Norah Jones and Blue Note's subsequent focus on younger ingenues (Jones, Keren Ann, Amos Lee) and smooth jazz/R&B nostalgia (Anita Baker), he was sort of an odd man out. It's almost as though Blue Note forgot what to do with a singer whose every release is nominated for a Grammy. Concord, the label behind such diverse acts as Ozomatli, Karrin Allyson, Pancho Sanchez and Eddie Palmieri, and the driving force behind the Stax Records re-launch, afforded Elling the freedom to make an album true to his aritsitc impulses.
Elling strengths have always been his rich baritone and his lyrical wordplay. He's still the preeminent male vocalese artist of his generation; arguments can be made that he's the only one. Vocalese, where a singer writes lyrics to existing music charts, is something of a lost art in this day. Elling, encouraged by mentors like Mark Murphy and Jon Hendricks, has long cultivated the writing style of a Beat poet, if not exactly the cool. On Nightmoves he writes lyrics based on improvised melodies bby Dexter Gordon ("Body and Soul", from 1976's Homecoming - Live At The Village Vanguard, which becomes an ligher-than-air exercise in wordplay), and a tender improvisation from a 1994 Keith Jarrett recording called "Leaving Again" that blends seamlessly into a hushed rendition of "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning." Elling and his band also bring considerable swing and swagger to Betty Carter's "Tight", and a straight-ahead cover of the Guess Who's "Undun" seems fitting for a late night at the Green Mill.
Throughout Nightmoves, Elling and his band, led by his longtime musical arranger and bandleader, pianist Laurence Hobgood, backs up the singer impeccably. Whether it's an interpretation of a Theodore Roethke poem ("The Waking") or adapting a translated Rumi poem to an improvised Von Freeman melody from 2001 ("I Like the Sunrise"), there's nothing the singer hears in his head that the band can't realize. The one time where Elling seems on the verge of going overboard is on the eMusic bonus track "Well, Did You Evah (What A Swell Party This Is)", a duet with the equally sincere and cloying John Pizzarelli that had us considering checking our blood sugar. Dig deep, however, and it's the sort of tune that made a career for the likes of Bing Crosby and latter-day Louis Armstrong. Nightmoves is a welcome addition to Elling's already considerable recording history. It's got the ambition and chops jazz aficionados long for, and accessible enough for casual listeners to latch onto.