Valentine’s Vocalese:Vocal master Kurt Elling romances at the Blue Note

The initial concept of the Chicago-based vocalist’s new disc Nightmoves—the first to be made in three years—was to provide the soundtrack to a feature film. That project, however, ultimately fell through, but Elling and his band took to the studio anyway, emerging with an album that is a mixture of the different sounds and textures that he’s been researching as of late.
“There was a whole lot of material with the creation of a soundtrack,” he explains. “We were in the studio and that original idea returned to me. That worked, and there is definitely a soundtrack in play.”

In one of Nightmoves’ most notable moments, he combines Irving Berlin’s “Change Partners” with Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “If You Never Came To Me.” On this version, he seems to borrow closely from the Klaus Ogerman arrangement of the Brazilian composer’s song as performed by Sinatra and Jobim on their 1967 collaboration. “That was the intention,” says Elling, “as I’ve been listening to Sinatra a lot lately.”

He plays further tribute to the maestro through a Portuguese-language rendition of “Luiza,” a tune he loves so much that he named his own daughter after it.

Ellings core passion, however, is “vocalese,” a technique that consists of putting words to improvised solos by jazz artists. In this process, he transcribes improvisations by the likes of Dexter Gordon, Keith Jarrett or John Coltrane, giving them his own interpretation. On the new disc, he rewrote the words to “Body And Soul” (renaming it “A New Body And Soul”). On one of his previous works, he reinvented Trane’s “Resolution”, and has also reworked solos by Wayne Shorter and Pat Metheny.

Elling has a close creative partnership with NY-based pianist-arranger Laurence Hobgood, with whom he has been working for the past 11 years. “I say, ‘Let’s chart a different course.’ And he says, ‘If you want to do this, we have to take it in this or that direction.’ It’s a good exchange: We do some things by video chat, and we get together very often.”

At his weeklong residence at the Blue Note, his quartet hosts various guests, such as guitarists Romero Lubambo and Guilherme Monteiro.

“This encourages us to play in a different manner,” explains Elling. “We follow them and have to find out where they’re going. It’s a challenge, and it also makes us move forward. And that is one of the most enjoyable ways to do it.”