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Buy this CDSince his first album was released over a decade ago, Kurt Elling has built a devoted and passionate fan base almost entirely through live performances and word of mouth.  He does what Pat Metheny does; he never plays down to them, he plays up to them.  They joyously come along, bring their friends, and end up exploring further and deeper into music, art, and literature they might not have touched upon had they not been lured by tangents and references in this artist's work.  If you haven't yet come into this circle, Nightmoves is a perfect stepping-stone.  He calls it the score to a movie that hasn't been made – a collection of songs that seem to come together through free association to tell the story of a love affair from beginning to end, from dusk 'til dawn. 

It's amazing that someone could come up with this group of songs and arrange them thematically.  He mines material from the Great American Songbook and Guess Who, juxtaposes Irving Berlin and Jobim, musically interprets poets Theodore Roethke and Walt Whitman, writes lyrics to solos from classic jazz recordings, There are so many moments on this album where the perfect words evoke the exact mood, both of the song as it is and of how it is going to resonate with the listener who has felt the same thing or been the same place. 

He has assembled an innovative group of musicians to tell this story.  The core group is the trio he performs with – long time collaborator and pianist Laurence Hobgood, bassist Rob Amster, and drummer Willie Jones III.  Other featured musicians include Yellowjackets saxophonist Bob Mintzer, keyboardist Rob Mounsey, harmonica virtuosos Howard Levy (one of the original Flecktones) and Gregoire Maret, The Escher String Quartet and bassist Christian McBride, who seems to appear on every groundbreaking contemporary jazz album in recent history.

This is an album, not just a group of songs, and it works best when you listen straight through.  Cherry picking off the download sites will get you some individual gems but to experience the intended effect you have to hear all of them sequentially.  “Nightmoves” is a Michael Franks song about the personas we put on when we're trying to impress.  Elling toughens it up with a rough edged delivery spiked by Mintzer's smoky sax.  “Tight” has Hobgood playing hard bop chords while Elling scats and swings proudly.  The mood shifts to pensive with “Change Partners/If You Never Come To Me.”  He nails the feeling of unrequited attraction singing in something close to a monotone “can't you see I'm longing to be in his place, won't you change partners and dance with me?”  Levy's atmospheric harmonica haunts the background as his voice becomes more emotive, then moves back into the deeper range as he questions the reason to care about anything if this lover never comes to him.  The fact that “Undun” works so well as a jazz song shouldn't be a surprise.  The original had those underpinnings; it was just waiting for someone to flesh it out.  The Escher String Quartet accompanies “Where Are You My Love” with an arrangement that shifts from dissonance to lushness, a nod toward modernism and the more traditional way to present a standard ballad.  Is “And We Will Fly” the point where the lead characters finally connect?  That's up to the listener to figure out.  It's a catchy Brazilian flavored melody that he sings with an airy touch.  This song should be getting airplay; it has the necessary melody and structure, and would be a refreshing alternative to breathy twentysomethings and pop stars trying to resuscitate their careers.  “The Waking” is the Roethke poem Elling has set to music, singing with only Amster's bass for accompaniment.  You could listen to it daily, and use it as a compass.  It makes you feel alive.  Pianist Fred Hersch put Walt Whitman's “The Sleepers” to music.  Someone will probably drop kick me for this reference but it reminds me of Simon and Garfunkel's early literary forays, he sings with that layer of beauty and sensitivity that Garfunkel sometimes attained but without the detachment.

This gracefully segues into “Leaving Again/In The Wee Small Hours.”  “Leaving Again” is a Keith Jarrett solo Elling has added lyrics that stage a love scene as beautiful as a page from a favorite novel.  The arrangement here is also sparse, just Elling and Hobgood's piano.  He softens the Sinatra classic to mesh with that mood and spirit of a late night alone and far away from the loved one.  “A New Body And Soul,” based on Dexter Gordon's version of “Body And Soul,” is a celebration of love found and shared.  It's a 10 minute showcase lyrically and vocally in a jazz trio setting with Hob good, McBride and Jones sounding like a fantasy late night jam session while Elling just goes off playing on words and breaking into a powerful acapella passage near the end.  Words adapted from Rumi turn Duke Ellington's “I Like The Sunrise,” into a benediction.  “The music in every sunrise makes a space inside the skies for setting free.”

Is it the end of the story or the beginning?  Or the beginning of an entirely different story?  Or a story that couldn't happen if the first one hadn't?  That is for you, the listener, to dream up as you immerse yourself in the multiple layers that make up this album.  Let your imagination run with it on a summer night that feels as tender as this night ends up being.  Fully realized concept albums are a rarity.  Sets of songs that tap into such a multitude of sources are even more so.  Listening to him talk about Night Moves on an NPR interview, he said he wanted to make a record that makes people feel better, that makes them realize the value of another day.  He's done more than that. He's made an album that inspires us to look more closely and feel more deeply than our daylight personas would allow.

- Shannon West

CD Reviews return to home page interviews CD Reviews Concert Reviews Perspectives - SmoothViews State of Mind Retrospectives - A Look Back at a Favorite CD On The Side - The Sidemen of Smooth Jazz On the Lighter Side - A Little Humor News - What's New in Smooth Jazz Links - A Guide to Smooth Jazz on the Web Contact Us About Us Website Design by Visible Image, LLC