Since the 1990s, Kurt Elling has proved a most innovative jazz singer. His recordings -- particularly The Messenger, Man in the Air, and Nightmoves -- also reveal him to be a modern jazz visionary. On The Gate, Elling presents nine songs gathered from rock, pop, soul, and jazz. Produced by Don Was, Elling is accompanied by longtime pianist Laurence Hobgood, saxophonist Bob Mintzer, guitarist John McLean, bassist John Pattitucci, alternating drummers Terreon Gulley and Kobie Watkins, and percussionist Lenny Castro.
The material here is evocative of Elling's all encompassing view of jazz as an ever-innovative popular music. It opens with a subtle, deeply emotive and poetic reading of King Crimson's "Matte Kudasai." Commencing with only Patitucci's upright bass before Gulley and Hobgood enter from the edges, Elling croons languidly at the upper reaches of his range. McLean's guitar is used economically and delicately until his solo.
Joe Jackson's "Steppin' Out" extends beyond the realm of the author's Cole Porter-influenced pop, transforming it into a warm, swinging, cool jazz number. The sparsity of Hobgood's phrasing underscoring Elling's voice shows remarkable restraint; Castro's hand percussion counters Watkins' hi-hat groove and makes it pop.
Herbie Hancock's "Come Running to Me" changes shape entirely, from its funky fretless bass and vocoder roots comes a bona fide soul-jazz midtempo ballad.
Stevie Wonder's "Golden Lady" backs off the funk; but the exacting interplay between Hobgood and Gulley keeps the soul intact; Elling reinvents it as an acoustic jazz ballad.
The Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" subtly restructures the tune's rhythmic accents without forsaking a note of its melody.
Earth, Wind & Fire's "After the Love Has Gone" is transformed into a limpid, nearly ethereal tone poem.
The reading of Miles Davis' "Blue in Green" is based on Al Jarreau's arrangement, but it opens up more: space and texture grant his voice room to explore the melody's interior.
"Samurai Cowboy," an original co-written with Marc Johnson, features Elling's multi-tracked vocals in a chanted chorus, underscoring a syncopated blues, highlighted by Mintzer's gritty fills.
"Nighttown, Lady Bright" closes it as poetic, post-beat improvisation with Elling reciting as well as singing.
The Gate presents Elling at the top of his game; it is a song cycle that is mesmerizing and mysterious as it is provocative and compelling.