In the personnel list on his latest album, The Gate (Concord Music), his credit reads: "Kurt Ellingâ€”Voice.â€ It's an appropriate choice because Elling plays his voice the way an instrumentalist plays his ax.
His instrument is pretty impressive: a top-of-the-line four-octave baritone. More impressive still is the technical assurance and control with which he wields it, as well as the razor-sharp intelligence that sculpts every line he sings. Then there's his willingness to go for broke. "Freedom has got to be an integral part of the experience if we're going to be jazz people,â€ he says.
Those characteristics have earned him nine Grammy nominations and finally, on his previous release, Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman (Concord), his first win. They've made him Best Male Vocalist for 11 straight years in Downbeat's critics' poll and won him a clutch of international awards.
You can hear him Thursday and Friday at the Outpost [in Albuquerque] when Elling appears with pianist and musical director Laurence Hobgood, guitarist John McLean, bassist Harish Raghavan, and drummer Ulysses Owens.
A Higher Calling
All the acclaim Elling has won is pretty remarkable for a guy who says, in regard to his career as a singer, "I wouldn't have thought of it on my own. I really wouldn't have.â€ In fact, he had been on his way to a career as a theological philosopher when he set out to attend divinity school as a graduate student at the University of Chicago.
Raised in Rockford, Ill., Elling sang in choral groups growing up, and he started exploring jazz in college. But it was in Chicago that he ventured to sit in one night at the Green Mill, the well-known jazz venue. From there, little by little, music began to displace philosophy. Encouraged by established Chicago musicians such as Von Freeman, Eddie Johnson and Ed Petersenâ€”"people who gave me my life in jazz music,â€ Elling saysâ€”he changed direction.
With The Gate, Elling expands his repertoire beyond the standard jazz collection. He serves up stunning takes on compositions such as Bill Evans' "Blue in Greenâ€ and Marc Johnson's "Samurai Cowboyâ€ (with hip lyrics from Elling), but he also reworks tunes from well outside the jazz genre, including King Crimson's "Matte Kudasaiâ€ and the Earth, Wind and Fire hit "After Love Has Gone,â€ among others.
The album's title refers to a gateway, or portal, says Elling, not a swinging door. "I think of the beautiful Zen gates that you find in Japan that remind you that you pass all the time from the sacred to the profane and back again.â€ The cover's image of a colorful Ferris wheel suggests, he says, another kind of gate: "Kerouac's wheel of meat,â€ or the wheel of reincarnation.
The project explores "a new kind of concept in sound for us,â€ he says. "I'm a little bit older. I live in New York now. I have a different manager than the last record. I'm watching my daughter grow up. The world continues to ... turn.â€ He wrings the last word into a commentary on global affairs.
While the material on his previous releases often formed around a central concept, the tunes on this one accreted "intuitivelyâ€ around the choice of producer: Don Was, who's worked with Bonnie Raitt and Bob Dylan. Elling says he had "an audio image in my mind of doing kind of a John Scofield kind of a record, or a Charlie Hunter kind of a record. The natural joy of their lives comes out in their music very uninterruptedly. I think the natural introspection of my life comes out in my music in that same way. So try as I might to make a boogaloo dance recordâ€”.â€ He breaks off, laughing.
The Gate may not be funky fun. It is, however, a work of spellbinding immediacy and artistic mastery that prefigures two exceptional concerts.