Jazz musicians are music fans tooâ€”a seemingly simple statement, but one many of us, particularly genre purists, often forget or ignore. Singer Kurt Elling and his frequent collaborator, musical director Laurence Hobgood, are refreshing for their open acknowledgement of their fan boy natures and love of pop music, which means more coming from two masters of the jazz tradition. On The Gate, Kurt Elling assembles a group of songs that reflects the range of music he loves and evokes the feeling of a mixtape from back when mixtapes meant a blank tape and the patience to sit through each song in its entirety.â€¨
Elling sets the tone for the rest of what follows by opening with a cover of King Crimson's "Matte Kudasai,â€ ushered in beautifully by Patitucci giving the original Tony Levin bass line an acoustic treatment and deserved front and center position in the arrangement. Stepping into the shoes of Adrian Belew reveals Elling's lustrous baritone as containing within it a close affinity to Belew's singing styleâ€”a connection only obvious after its been made. The veteran ensemble translates the song completely into the jazz idiom, with each player credited for the arrangement. "Matte Kudasaiâ€ suggests we may finally have entered an era where progressive rock/fusion controversies can be left alone and the natural places of overlap between the genres and musicians be explored without the added pressure of their respective militant fan bases.
For those who care to listen, there are several other nods to the production and songwriting of progressive rock from Elling and the arrangements of the pianist Laurence Hobgood, but remaining true enough to the sound and approach of jazz to run little risk of losing those who prefer the music undiluted. Elling carries this theme of the intersections of jazz with great subtlety, but consistentlyâ€”his cover of Joe Jackson's "Steppin Outâ€ nods to Nicholas Payton in the arrangement, he rediscovers fellow genre-crosser Herbie Hancock's "Come Running To Me,â€ joins the ranks of jazz covers of "Golden Lady.â€
The approach best bears fruit in "Samurai Cowboy,â€ Elling's interpretation of bassist Marc Johnson's composition. Elling builds the song almost entirely through layering of his vocals, his voice providing the backbeat and bass lines, accompanied only by Lenny Castro's percussion and punctuated by energetic bursts of Bob Mintzer's tenor that send up the tradition of excellent studio horn players like the late Clarence Clemons overlooked for their playing on rock and pop sessions. Multi-layered vocals still counts as experimental in a jazz context, but has long matured past its teenage years in the hands of performers like Robert Wyatt and Brian Enoâ€”experience drawn upon by Elling.
The Gate makes its case for the many roads traveled by jazz musicians with love and little force or self-righteousness, aware of both the possibility of converting more close-minded listeners and the fact they won't want a hard sell. Elling ends with an excerpt of Ellington's biography Music Is My Mistress on "Nighttown, Lady Bright,â€ with Duke enumerating the many inhabitants of the urban nightlifeâ€”reminding us jazz musicians have always traveled within the surrounding culture and served as astute observers of not only art but the popular. A fitting final point for an album that puts forth an argument about the nature of music, while never sacrificing the importance of the music itself to a polemic.