Pssst: Best male jazz vocalist – pass it on

Pssst: Kurt Elling is the best male vocalist working in jazz these days. Pass it on.
That shouldn’t be a secret. The man has been making solid, adventurous albums since 1995. But not enough people seem to know about his gifts. Of course, my commercial radio-loving friends have no clue: Kurt who?

Elling’s new CD, Nightmoves, is yet another expansive effort that glows with his robust, blues-dipped vocals. Only this time, he comes down to earth.

“It’s coming from a different place now,” says the singer-songwriter, 39. “There’s some maturity there. I feel more settled.” Much has gone on in Elling’s life since Man in the Air, his last album, came out in 2003. That record — definitely inspired, if at times a little knotty — featured the artist’s cosmic, Beat-inspired lyrics put to such beloved instrumentals as John Coltrane’s “Resolution” and Pat Metheny’s “Minuano.” He toured behind it for two years. During that time, his contract with Blue Note Records expired, and he shopped around for a label, eventually signing with Concord.

Then “I changed management a few times, and that took some time. And my wife and I had had our first child, so there was a lot going on in just the last two years,” Elling says.

The birth of his now-18-month-old daughter, Luiza, helped center his creative energy. Elling says he felt calmer during the recording of Nightmoves. And the album’s relaxed, nocturnal mood reflects the change.

“This is more of an experience of nuance and depth,” the Chicago native says of the album. “Man in the Air was an experience in exercise.”

Though more subdued than the previous album, Nightmoves retains the singer’s tasteful sense of musical adventure. He worked with more musicians this time, including great players such as Christian McBride, Willie Jones and the Escher String Quartet. The arrangements reveal beautiful subtleties with repeated listens. And the songs — some self-penned, others by such diverse artists as Michael Franks (the sexy title track), Betty Carter (“Tight”) and Randy Bachman (“Undun”) — are movingly rendered by Elling.

“This was like a soundtrack for a movie that hasn’t been made,” he says. “The songs fit together for an imaginary story line that follows a guy in the evening who’s about to break up with his chick, then find somebody new. … But you don’t have to have that in your mind to get into this record.”

Nightmoves flows regardless, evoking at times the best of Frank Sinatra and Mark Murphy. Lyrically, Elling is more accessible. Though still imagery-rich, his songs this time aren’t hemorrhaging references from Jack Kerouac, Rainer Maria Rilke and other heavy literary figures.

“[The writing] is more personal,” says Elling, who considered a career as an academic before becoming a full-time jazz artist in the early ’90s. “The birth of my daughter changed a lot. I had her in mind with the hopefulness in ‘I Like the Sunrise’ and the pain that comes in ‘Leaving Again.’ Because I’m on the road so much, I have to be away from her and miss a lot.”

On Nightmoves, Elling continues to push himself, revealing fascinating aspects of his complex artistry.

“There’s this wheel spinning,” he says. “I have to keep the adventure going.”