Elling’s Unflappable Daring

No matter what the room, chances are Kurt Elling would be the coolest one in it. An unabashed hipster (in the pre-American Apparel sense of the word), the jazz vocalist’s velvety, elastic baritone has a way of making itself comfortable in a wide range of genres, most recently with the live John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman tribute album, “Dedicated to You.”
On “The Gate,” he teams with producer Don Was to tackle a variety of standards as well as covers from the pop songbook as unpredictable as they are rewarding. Just when it seems the Beatles have been reworked in just about every conceivable way, Elling wrings further romantic nuance from a smoothly tweaked take on “Norwegian Wood” that features a biting, bluesy solo from guitarist John McLean. Aided by longtime collaborator Laurence Hobgood on piano, Elling strips the ’80s schmaltz from Earth, Wind & Fire’s “After the Love Has Gone” and reveals the melancholy soul underneath, and even prog titans King Crimson get filtered through Elling’s nocturnal vision with a swooning take on the 1981 ballad “Matte Kudasai.”

Reworkings of Herbie Hancock’s “Come Running to Me” and Miles Davis’ “Blue in Green” carry a lush sweetness that nearly becomes cloying, but Elling’s unflappable daring shines throughout. It’s not an easy trick to honor a song’s spirit while redrawing it in your own image, but it’s a very cool one.

Three stars (out of four)