I'm not qualified to give an objective review of the new Kurt Elling album "Nightmoves," but then again if you believe in the fallacy of critical objectivism then I could really use your help getting to some of the funds that my father left in escrow when the coup removed him from power in Nigeria.
This review is meant for fans.
So, as a fan, I was worried about the "personnel experiments" that Kurt warned us of early in the recording process. Let's face it, we've all been fiercely protective of the "band" as we know it from the realities of the last ten years. However, you must admit: if you're going to use a bassist other than Rob Amster in the studio, it had damned well better be Christian MacBride. The difference in playing styles is noticeable. The difference in quality of player is not. Also, don't worry: Bob Mounsey complements Laurence on keyboards. He does not apparently sit in for him on any track, however-the title track, "Undun" and "And We Will Fly" all have very strong non-electronic piano lines. The new producer, John Chicerelli, also seems to work out very well, cementing the tricky new mix brilliantly.
Elling offers both growth and familiarity to his fans on this outing. "Tight" is a great romantic up tune, most akin to "I Feel So Smoochie" in it's treatment but with hints of the playfulness in "Endless" and the virtuous swing of "The More I Have You." "Nightmoves" reflects a lot of the feeling that was present in "This Time It's Love," especially with regard to "Effendi" for its attention to melodic intensity and "Where I Belong," for its manipulation of emotional reaction via rhythm. The title track also recalls "Never Say Goodbye" from "Close Your Eyes" in structure and sonic palette.
The Hobgood arrangement of "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" gives the song the sense of sincerity it has lacked in every version you've ever heard, adding uncertainty and the true pain of a missing lover to the comping harmony. I trashed the Sinatra and Botti/Sting versions from my iTunes after hearing this version because I'll never again hear them as anything but saccharine and false.
"Body and Soul" is Kurt Elling doing what he does: taking the best version of a standard and lyrically riffing over the solo after the standard head. This vocalese takes his previous masterworks "Tanya Jean" and "Resolution" to task, but rather surprisingly, the solo he covers this time is the version offered by Kenny G from "Classics In the Key of G" instead of the more obvious Dexter Gordon "Homecoming-Live at the Village Vanguard" version. (Just kidding-please don't put a hit out on me.)
"Change Partners" and "And We Will Fly" are two songs Kurt has done live at nearly every show I've attended over the last year and a half, so it may come as a surprise when I say that each of these qualify as one of those rare occasions where the studio version polish actually makes the song an even better experience than the intimacy of a live performance is likely to provide. Notably, Kurt has used two different harmonica virtuosos on this album. Howard Levy's performance gives "Partners" kind of Stevie Wonderfulness while Grégoire Maret soaks "Fly" with a dreamy literalness of the sensation of flight. For me, either of these songs alone is would justify the rest of the album if it sucked. But of course, the rest of the album far from sucks.
Similarly, "The Waking" is a simple, perfect duet between Kurt and his regular genius/comedian/ladies' man bassist Rob Amster that could "make" an album for a lesser artist if that other artist had nothing else of value to record. Contrast this with "Those Clouds are Heavy, You Dig?" from 12 years ago and the growth, expertise and intimacy between the two men as artists draws you in with the comfort of excellence.
The new version of "The Sleepers" follows up "The Waking" (leave it to Elling's midwestern work ethic to get it backwards, putting waking before sleeping.) I assume this was Hobgood's arrangement for the Escher quartet, as it has a great deal more presence and respect for the song than was there on the Hersch recording, along with a confidence of melody and functional harmony that I usually associate with Laurence's work.
"Undun" was the one song that I correctly predicted would end up on the album about a year ago. Elling has established a brilliant tradition of taking songs more familiar to the popular, jazz-deficient mindset and "explaining" the medium of jazz through these pieces to an audience which might not otherwise have the chance to ever "get it." There's plenty of traditional rhythm section and sax comping here for jazz lovers, but also a heaping tablespoon of funk in the swing. This is the song that you can play for the friend who agrees to join you at the concert but says "I won't know any of those songs" (a direct Elling quote from the "Man in the Air" CD release concert, though it was in reference to that album's "Never My Love.")
"Where Are You" and "I Like the Sunrise" are straight-up torch ballads that approximate the performances at the Mill with the addition of a reverb treatment more akin to a larger hall than Jemillo's definitive club.
To sum up my experience of the album, I'd have to say that the biggest revelation maybe shouldn't have been a surprise: that Blue Note was in some ways holding Kurt back creatively. There's an energy, an exuberance and a brilliance here that have never come through in the ones and zeros commitments of the Elling/Hobgood partnership before. Nightmoves is a welcome belligerence of the creative spirit. The music is removing its belt, unbuttoning its slacks and sitting down at the piano bench while groaning something to the effect of finally being free of important and friendly but not entirely welcome dinner guests.
And now, the music is getting to work.