Not one to rest on his laurels, singer Kurt Elling's new release heads in an entirely different direction from Dedicated to You, his 2009 Grammy-winning tribute to the classic John Coltrane-Johnny Hartman album. The Gate - produced by rock legend Don Was, who has called Elling "the greatest singer I ever heard in my life" - focuses mostly on pop and rock material, including tunes by the Beatles, Stevie Wonder and King Crimson, along with more traditional jazz fare by Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock.
Although Elling utilizes some electronics and vocal multilayering, jazz purists need not fear that this is some kind of watered-down attempt at pop crossover. With his rich baritone, four-octave range and remarkable improvisational skills, Elling and a firstrate band (including longtime collaborator Laurence Hobgood on piano, Bob Mintzer on saxophone, John McLean on electric guitar and John Patitucci on bass) makes every one of these songs completely his own, transforming even the most familiar tunes into something fresh. On "Norwegian Wood", he sticks pretty close to the original melody, but pulls and stretches the lyrics in unexpected ways. On a lively version of jazz-loving punk rocker Joe Jackson's "Steppin' Out", he skips a verse here, adds some new lyrics there, but always keeps things swinging. Wonder's "Golden Lady" gets a more upbeat treatment than the original, with just a tease of scatting. Even Earth, Wind and Fire's humdrum ballad "After the Love Has Gone" is reborn as a passionate vehicle for Elling's strikingly beautiful voice while his shimmering take on the Miles Davis-Bill Evans classic "Blue in Green" showcases his amazing range, as he soars and soars into a ghostly falsetto.
Elling also adds his own vocalese lyrics to a couple of tracks with great success. "Samurai Cowboy", a tune by bassist Marc Johnson, is a spare, funky delight, with Elling singing playfully over Mintzer's spirited sax fills. The closer, which mixes haunting new lyrics to Don Grolnick's "Nightime, Lady Bright" with a spoken word interlude of Elling reading a passage on the jazz life from Duke Ellington's memoir, is one probably no other singer besides Elling - and perhaps his role model Mark Murphy - could pull off. It's powerful, creative, daring and uniquely Kurt Elling.