Downbeat: Nightmoves ****1/2
The references range far and wide on Kurt Elling’s Concord debut. The Chicago-based singer– framed by nuanced charts from Laurence Hobgood, his longtime pianist/arranger, and guests Rob Mounsey and Christian McBride — puts his idiosyncratic sensibility to work on disparate repertoire.
Songbook and contemporary standards intermingle with songs set to poems from the canons of Walt Whitman, Theodore Roethke and Rumi.
Elling sets original lyrics to classic instrumental improvisations by Dexter Gordon and Keith Jarrett, and he interprets jazz compositions by Betty Carter and Alan Pasqua. More than on any previous session, Elling connects the threads, weaving them into an impromptu, multihued suite, connected by an abiding motif of night-to-dawn activity and themes of love, desire and longing, refracted through an inner vision that glories in the wonder and mystery of it all.
The wonder and mystery of Elling’s clean-as-a-whistle-with-a-touch-of-husk tenor voice permeates the proceedings. Consider the command of meter, nuanced phrasing and effortless range that he brings to bear on the mid-album pairing of Roethke’s “The Waking,” sung in duet with bassist Rob Amster, and to Whitman’s “The Sleepers,” joined by the Escher String Quartet. He conveys the ecstasy of Duke Ellington’s “I Like The Sunrise,” the hipness of Betty Carter on “Tight” (McBride’s arrangement) and the rueful bittersweet nature of Gordon on “Where Or When” (phrased to a solo from “Go”).
Elling extracts the existential ache of “Wee Small Hours” and connects it to “Leaving Again,” his lyric inspired by a Jarrett improv on the classic Frank Sinatra vehicle. Here and throughout, he’s a risk taker, one of the few post-Baby Boom hardcore jazz artists who can live up to the term “original.”