Positive changes for Kurt Elling

JAZZ SINGING IS a woman’s world. Whether it’s the pop jazz (or jazzy pop) of artists such as Diana Krall, Norah Jones, Jane Monheit and Lizz Wright, who’ve had some crossover success, or more purely jazz singers such as Dianne Reeves and Patricia Barber, it’s usually a woman’s voice you’ll hear, tackling the old standards, reinventing pop tunes or developing their own material.
Over a decade ago, Kurt Elling made his first move to breech that wall. With his 1995 debut Close Your Eyes, the Chicago-based singer made a splash with his ambling hipster vocal approach applied to a mix of his own tunes as well as compositions by Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Dave Brubeck, and a stand-it-on-its-head reinvention of “Never Never Land” from Peter Pan. He also brought a literature lover’s infatuation with words he used to demonstrate his fluidity in a style called “vocalese,” setting words to a pre-existing jazz instrumental solo. Words seemed to fly in every direction as he spouted his jaw-dropping verbal extravaganzas.

Five albums and seven Grammy nominations later, Elling’s established a stellar presence among jazz lovers. But in the nearly four years since his last release Man in the Air, a lot of things changed for Elling personally and professionally, and his new album, Nightmoves, just out on Concord Jazz, shows heavy musical changes. With the exception of an intricate word-spinning take on the jazz classic “Body and Soul,” titled “A New Body and Soul” and a short scat section on the spirited “Tight,” the album is devoid of the sort of flash and wordy cascades Elling’s known for. The 11 tunes run the gamut from a deft co-mingling of Irving Berlin’s “Change Partners” with the Antonio Carlos Jobim/Luis de Oliviera/Ray Gilbert tune “If You Never Come to Me,” to the airy, sighing bossa nova of “And We Will Fly,” to a bright delicate rendition of the Guess Who’s ’70s hit “Undun,” which he gives a sighing, rueful quality as he uncouples it from its rigid pop tempo and opens it up.

He again draws on literature for the Theodore Roethke lyrics of “The Waking,” which he spotlights via a sparse rendition with only bass accompaniment where he caresses the words with deliberation, making each more freighted with meaning, a less-is-more approach that runs through the entire disc. It’s easy to imagine hearing these tracks on the radio. So what happened in the last four years that turned this word junkie into a singer now more prone to linger over a single word and shade it with meaning through intonation and tone? And why the long break?

“Well, first of all, Man in the Air was a big success and it kept us on the road for quite a long time,” he says, calling from his Chicago apartment where his baby daughter Luiza calls out for his attention in the background, and he occasionally interrupts himself to reassure her. “We toured Man in the Air for more than two years just because we had so much work from it. Then over that space of time, I realized that it was time to move on from my great manager of 10 years Bill Traut and try to figure out what more there was going to be available for me because I really needed to move it up to the next level. As it happened, my contract with Blue Note was up, so I had an opportunity to look around there as well. So these things take a lot of time. You’ve got to test out new relationships and see what makes sense. And my wife and I had our first child; we moved apartments. I think I just relaxed a lot, especially becoming a father. Three years, all those things that changed had put me into a different mindset. I just grew up some more. Oh, and I was also vice-chairman of the recording academy [The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the sponsors of the Grammys]. So I definitely had a full plate.”

A full plate indeed. But he continued to amass material, and his stint with NARAS led to a friendship with Joe Ciccarelli, who became the first outside co-producer Elling’s used; previously he and his longtime pianist/co-composer Laurence Hopgood had co-produced.

“We hung out quite a bit and had a lot of the same interests,” he says of Ciccarelli. “We turned each other on to sounds and just struck up a great rapport and had a good time together. So it was a natural thing for me to reach out to him because he had said, man, I really want to try some stuff with you. I’ve got some ideas of how you can take this stuff. He just has a very interesting take on things and he’s worked with heaps of creative people.”

He said that using an outside producer freed him up to focus on his vocals and to massage the ideas he’d brought to the sessions, to fully explore the material.

“Usually the m.o. that jazz people have is to go in and do two or three takes and take the best take, you put it out,” he says. “The jazzier ones we definitely did in the standard jazz way. But on the more pop-oriented things, I ended up making many, many passes because Joe really wanted me to play in a way that I hadn’t played before. You sort of have to use up the idea that you initially relied upon in order to say, “Well, I’ve tried all that and he still wants me to do something else. OK, now what if I do this?'”

One of the things that Elling was going for on this record was a loose concept involving the evolution of the feelings and interactions of a pair of lovers over the course of a night from “dusk to dawn.”

“There’s a throughway on this record that I think has a payoff at the end,” he says. “Every composition takes you to a certain place and explores a certain element or shading of events and of storytelling and of emotion. I sort of pointed everything toward the last three compositions [“Leaving Again in the Wee Small Hours,” “A New Body and Soul,” “I Like the Sunrise”] which is a little bit backwards way to think of things. When it comes to recording, you put what you think of as the strongest hitting ideas first. But since I’m trying to tell a story, the redemptive moments of the story happen in the middle but have their payoff in the end.

He says he didn’t really know what direction this story would take when he went into the studio, preferring to be open to ideas, evolution and happy accidents.

“I had put two or three different, what I was thinking of as screenplays, together for this record. There were five or six different ways to sequence this record that would have been perfectly legitimate given the theme that I had in mind. Ultimately it comes down to intuition because once you record a number of tunes and once you spend the time to investigate individual arrangements and what things should sound like, you’ve got to ask yourself, “What’s best for this tune? Do I need to make another pass? Do we need to have another instrument come in? Why don’t I like this yet? And once you explore that kind of thing, then the compositions come out sounding like they sound, and that’s oftentimes different from what you had in your mind.'”