Last Saturday night, one of Ottawa's biggest jazz fans took me aside at Cafe Paradiso -- we were there to see David Braid -- to voice his disappointment with Kurt Elling's latest CD, The Gate. I wasn't surprised. For that long-time jazz fan, Elling is unbeatable when he's engaged in epic feats of vocalese or applying his talents to transform jazz instrumental classics. But that fan is sour on Elling (who is about three decades younger than he is) when the singer is "crooning" (a la 2009's Dedicated To You) or worse, covering fare by Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind and Fire, and The Beatles.
I have more time for Elling in all his pursuits, and generally I like The Gate. Some of its tracks interest me less than others, but most of them work just fine, and throughout, Elling sings like a million bucks -- sometimes two.
Supported by bassist John Patitucci, drummers Terreon Gully or Kobie Watkins, guitarist John McLean and above all, pianist/musical director Laurence Hobgood, Ellings for the most part turns his attention to '60s, '70s and '80s fare from the pop, R 'n' B and contemporary jazz worlds. Thus, the ballads on The Gate include covers of King Crimson's Matte Kudusai, EWF's After The Love Has Gone, Stevie Wonder's Golden Lady and Waking Dream, Elling's philosophical adaptation of Joe Zawinul's Dream Clock. I think these tunes hit the mark, with Elling's rich, nuanced singing casting the right spell.
There's a happy, swinging revamp of Joe Jackson's Steppin' Out (which the otherwise grumpy fan praised, I suspect, because of its walking bass and ding-ding-a-dinging cymbals). A cover of Norwegian Wood is a bit overloaded in its arrangement, but Elling's not the culprit. Nighttown, Lady Bright is a Don Grolnick tune that Elling's made his own with words by himself and Duke Ellington. At nine minutes in length, it's the disc's one extended track, and Elling takes full advantage of the space to tell a story through the song.
Less successful is the Come Running To Me, which was a Herbie Hancock vocoder vehicle back in the day and doesn't gain much from Elling's resuscitation. It's still kind of sleepy. Blue in Green also misses the mark as it strives for soundscape gravitas. As he does on many tracks, Elling overdubs himself to add vocal layering. In this instance, the tactic doesn't deliver.
Indeed, The Gate is unapologetically a studio creation, tidied and buffed, with Elling very much in the foreground and the solos by sideman tightly measured. There are also deliberate sonic choices (the muffled, retro snare drum sound on Come Running to Me, the off-to-the-side placement of Bob Mintzer's saxophone on Samurai Cowboy) and fillips (Lenny Castro's percussion, numerous harmony vocals/choirs deployed as accents) that underscore that the CD isn't simply a live-off-the-floor jazz thing. It's either been augmented or gussied up, depending on where you sit. (I expect that I'm generally more accepting of these tweaks than the cranky fan is.)
My last comment about The Gate is that while I'll be coming back to certain tracks to hear what's there, I do miss the stretching out and gusto that Elling and company offered when I saw them in the Library and Archives Canada auditorium last December. So, if I compare the disc's version of Golden Lady to this live performance, which features saxophonist Ernie Watts and Elling playing off each other:
I have to prefer the live -- more lively -- take.
That's not enough of an issue to make me sour about The Gate. But it does me keen to catch Elling when's he returns to Ottawa this summer.