Best vocal release of the millennium

More than any other kind of music, jazz, to be great or even good, requires a fierce individualism, whether the players are solo or in groups. Rules are acknowledged, and then they must be broken, trounced. Jazz titans—Ellington, Armstrong, Holiday, Davis, Coltrane, Jarrett, Alyer, among many others—regularly, and with great ferocity, renounce and repudiate convention; it exists only as a framework for what must be destroyed.
Kurt Elling is one of the great jazz singers and interpreters we have, because of his talent and his predilection for rule-breaking. In Nightmoves, his first release on Concord records, after years with Blue Note, Elling gives further evidence that he is the preeminent male jazz singer of our time; and, that his imagination and interpretative abilities continue to develop in unanticipated, but magical ways. If jazz is largely a stagnant music form these days—living far too long off its history, without significant and vital development—it is not because of Elling. With Nightmoves the genre now has its best vocal release, male or female, of the millennium.

Elling’s talent is large, but he excels at scat vocalese, creating lyrics to the improvised solos of other jazz artists—on this album, notably, Keith Jarrett. In his vocalese work, Elling, always respecting and demanding of the audience, references works of literature, especially poetry. On Nightmoves, Elling integrates into his lyrics the work of Walt Whitman and the poet Theodore Roethke.

What Elling brings to all of his records is an idiosyncratic scat-vocal, an unusual lyric sensitivity, and an abundant imagination and creative intellect. Take one of the tracks, for instance. “Leaving Again/In the Wee Small Hours,” is a Keith Jarrett-Frank Sinatra medley. Elling takes the Jarrett piece and constructs an ethereal verse around it, while, during the Sinatra piece, adds a lyrical coda that alters, subtly, the song’s devastation-of-love ending so that it rings, if distantly, of survival, of having endure love’s pain but not having utterly succumbed to it. It is not surprising that Elling would team with Jarrett (both Blue Note artists) because in Jarrett’s devoutly wandering piano skirmishes Elling finds a kindred spirit—restless, unrelenting, artistically hungry.

Aptly named because it represents a disc-long theme, Nightmoves addresses things nocturnal, an important time and imagery set for Elling. “Nightmoves” is a smoky, sultry cover of a Michael Franks tune that largely defines the tone of the album. Its final song, Duke Ellington’s “I Like the Sunrise,” Nightmoves concludes with the singer having covered a twilight-to-dawn sound- and moodscape that is as dazzling as it is darkly and richly somber. But then, that’s Elling’s strength: the ability sonically, idiosyncratically to encompass and embody moods with such great conviction and greater subtlety.

For the breadth of its humanity, and its artistic openness, Kurt Elling’s Nightmoves stands as a truly important, and entertaining, jazz work. It represents an artist working and moving furiously toward pure creativity. As an exercise in pure jazz vocal imagination, Nightmoves is clearly one of the more important works of the last decade. Elling is a singer who shows signs only of advancing his art and deepening his understanding of, and respect for, the traditions of jazz, while gleefully and with great abandon deconstructing all of its conventions.