Kurt Elling: Invitation to Epiphany

On his latest recording, The Gate (Concord Jazz), perennial DownBeat poll winner and recent Grammy Award winner Kurt Elling invites the listener on a journey. That’s standard patter for any artist intent on capturing, holding and increasing an audience, but from Elling the invitation is altogether something different. Something meaningful. When Elling sings, you hear the weight of experience, the weight of his life, behind every syllable. Sure, he swings. But this intellectual, who studied religious philosophy at University of Chicago’s School of Divinity, who cut his chops at the city’s famous Green Mill, who can speak as eloquently about the Kol Nidre, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche as he can about Duke Ellington, is that rare being in U.S. culture: a thinking man’s artist who bows to the visceral and hails to the spiritual.
“The Gate [implies] a threshold,” Elling says from Manhattan. “I think about the gateless gate that you see in Japan, the beautiful Shinto Shrine gates. It’s a Zen tradition of meditation. They remind people that you pass through any moment of the day between the sacred and the profane, between one consciousness and another, between power and powerlessness. All these different aspects that are in seeming opposition, but are just one step away from each other at any moment. The next corner you turn, the next pothole you step into are all tied together but you’re still passing through thresholds with every step. And of the course, The Gate means the jazz thing—swings like a gate. The Gate represents a passage into another thing, and every time we make a record there’s a new passage and a new step into some new direction. I hope that we’re ascending.”

Elling has made bold records before, but The Gate, which tempers pop songs with a jazz approach and jazz material with an otherworldly approach, is a daring album, a life-affirming recording, a work that challenges the very notion of what constitutes the idea of “a jazz singer” in today’s genre-fragmented, non-jazz-friendly world. The Gate recalls Joni Mitchell’s Court And Spark, another album of seamless, effortless, beautiful genre bending. The Gate also challenges preconceived notions of jazz instrumentation, of possibilities with pop material, and finally, it explores vocal areas that few, if any “jazz” singers, have dared to imagine, much less achieve.

“On the inside it feels like a natural progression,” Elling says. “I can hear its roots in past records, things that we were trying to do on a smaller scale. We’ve certainly experimented with our share of compositions from pop music, and from other genres, so that’s nothing new. Every once in a while I’ve done multi-tracking of the voice. So I can’t point to an ingredient that we haven’t at least tried out before. It was a matter of finding the right people, the right team, the right energies coming together in the right way with enough confidence and enough maturity, both musical and human, to produce something that is as coherent and as far reaching as I hope this recording is.”

Produced by Don Was, The Gate features Elling’s longtime collaborator and pianist, Laurence Hobgood, with guitarist John McLean, drummer Terreon Gully and bassist John Patitucci. Their freedom and belief in the music can be heard on every track. For the first time, Elling dives into obvious pop material from Stevie Wonder (“Golden Lady”), Joe Jackson (“Steppin’ Out”), The Beatles (“Norwegian Wood”) and Earth Wind & Fire (“After The Love Has Gone”). Miles Davis’ “Blue In Green” and Herbie Hancock’s “Come Running To Me” also get the treatment. But there is no dividing line between pop and jazz, between a standard treatment and one that defies expectation and brilliantly, passionately soars into the future.

Elling and Hobgood dissect, rearrange and expand on the material in unheard-of ways, whether it’s Elling’s mind-meld harmonies undulating over daring rhythms in “Norwegian Wood” and “Blue In Green,” the simple yet essentially spiritual version of King Crimson’s “Matte Kudasai,” or the odd-metered funk flow of “Golden Lady” (whose 7/4 pulse was initially met with derision by Elling’s record label). The Gate sounds premeditated, but it was in large part developed in the fission of nightly performance, on the road.

Elling displays an “aw shucks” attitude towards praise, but The Gate is an achievement of the highest order, and alters the jazz landscape for those with ears to hear. Ask Elling to explain, and he’ll pass the ball. To producer Don Was, who has worked with everyone from The Rolling Stones to Bob Dylan to Lucinda Williams. “Don Was brought love into the room,” Elling says. “Love and respect and no-bullshit support for anything I wanted to try. Don loves music, and he goes all the way with that love. He’d sit there with headphones listening to a fourth pass of a percussion track with the same smile on his face as he would listen to the final mix of any of the cuts. He’s in love with the process and the musicians. It was the big brother, father, collaborator you’ve always wanted to have in the studio. It was a real shot in the arm for everybody.”

Kurt loves Don. Don loves Kurt. And love conquers all.

“I was driving to the studio one day, listening to KJazz,” Was recalls from his home in Los Angeles. “They played that Sondheim song from Flirting With Twilight, ‘Not While I’m Around.’ I was awed by Kurt’s phrasing. How he infused every syllable with meaning, and how he cut to the essence of the song. But he did it unlike anyone else has done. I work with singers all the time, and that is the ideal, to find someone who brings truth to every line and not fall back on technique or chops or ephemera. There’s no flotsam and jetsam with Kurt, he doesn’t waste anything.”

“Couple that with the cats we had in the room,” Elling continues. “Patitucci, his level of command and his confidence, Terreon is killing, and McLean we knew from the Green Mill days. I invited those guys specifically because we’d made personal connections on the road. They were enthusiastic about the hit. When we got into the studio, I said, ‘I don’t know where I want this to go, here’s the song, here’s a set of emotions and I don’t know what we should do.’ In the case of ‘Matte Kudasai’ in particular. I brought these musicians in because I needed them to help me invent something. I had to bring my A-plus game.”

Recorded at New York’s Sear Sound, with overdubs at LA’s The Village, The Gate goes from strength to strength. Elling’s spine-tingling, modulating harmony extensions on “Come Running To Me,” the luxurious hipness of “Steppin’ Out,” the stillness of “Matte Kudasai.” “Come Running To Me,” originally a funky ’70s track, is re-imagined into a meditation. “Norwegian Wood” floats, then flies, Elling layering scats, harmonies and digging deep over Gully’s storming sticking, the song giving way to McLean’s foray into psychedelic darkness. It’s the kind of fusion that celebrates music as lifegiver, sustaining the original while extending its wingspan. “Blue In Green” is a shock. Think Doug and Jean Carn’s 1972 version (Spirit Of The New Land, Black Jazz) shorn of its soothing splendor and infused with hallucinogen-worthy dread. Hobgood is magical here, painting an intro ostinato as Elling coaxes the melody, the band soaring like Bass Desires of old, Gully flying, Patitucci plucking, Elling multi-tracking lyrics about “A Love Supreme,” then taking it out, way out, the group catching his fire and improvising with shades of electronic music delays, weeping guitar tones and possible levitation.

“That was not something we had a lot of premeditation about,” Elling explains. “We’d used ‘Blue And Green’ as a third set alternate at the Green Mill when we were too creatively tired to think of anything complicated but we still wanted to play something of quality. It’s good for stretching out, and it’s a cool space to get into. Laurence invented that piano ostinato. He thought, ‘Let’s stretch the melody this far.’ That’s all the direction we had in mind. And all the direction we gave the cats. We thought we were going to do a fade after my little area of soloing, but with digital you can just keep stuff running. That whole secondary section where the rhythm section explodes into a volcanic moment—that was just an organic thing that happened in the studio. They were all feeling it and listening. The vocal harmonies, I took a week off and listened to it and figured them out, then Laurence and I harmonized the solo section in the studio. We don’t even have a chart on that, it’s just Laurence listening and Patitucci extending the idea in response to what I came up with as a solo. We tried to enhance the music with surprises and with epiphanies of possibility.”

Don Was concurs regarding “Blue In Green,” and Elling approaching the sublime.

“As it was going down, I knew something was happening there that had never been captured before, that I had never heard before,” Was says. “It hit another plateau. That’s the first take. I don’t think it will alienate old fans; it’s not inaccessible. It’s pleasing to the ear. But if you stop to examine what’s going on there, they’ve really upped the ante on the definition of jazz singing. The relationship between Kurt and Laurence, it breaks down previous definitions of the vocalist-arranger relationship. It reminds me Mick and Keith in the Stones. Usually the guitarist plays in the holes, but they’re often playing the melody together, though they don’t phrase in the same place. Same with Kurt and Laurence, their roles are interwoven.”

With the assurance of a Grammy win for 2009’s Dedicated To You CD behind them (“It humbles and touches me,” the formerly soulpatched singer confides, “but I can’t say it’s gotten me any specific gigs”), Elling and Hobgood can continue with the business of making music—a business that is in dire straits. With the crush of the marketplace jazz feels the pinch, its vocalists especially. Too many play it safe, covering the standard repertoire, cutting less than topnotch tracks and ultimately robbing the music of its future. Elling can “overflow the boundaries” as he puts it, but lesser vocalists without his skill, much less his vision, bring everyone down.

“How many truly great jazz singers have there ever been?” he asks. “And how many people do we have playing at jazz? They’re using the touchstone of jazz and the material to play an identity game that doesn’t have much to do with the basic premise of jazz, which is innovation and improvisation and risk-taking. They just don’t have the concepts of the forward-thinking, always grasping, potentially pitfall-filled nature of jazz music. So the concept isn’t there in many cases, and yet there’s this sort of cultural cache about this faint echo of what it means to be a jazz singer: wearing the clothes, singing in a club of a certain size with a certain kind of microphone, there’s a lot of playing at jazz. That clutters the space. How many people are really willing to invest the work to get beyond the facade, to get to the real work, to burrow in? It’s hard. There’s no part of this that’s easy. The sacrifices you have to make to master your instrument, to master yourself, to really listen to the material, to pay homage to the past not with just lip service but through the engagement of the essential innovative act. It’s a real challenge.”

Elling points to a handful of vocalists who are stepping out—Sheila Jordan, Nancy King, Kate McGarry, Becca Stevens, Theo Bleckmann, Jo Lawry and JD Walter—and who perhaps share his goal to reach musical nirvana.

“There is a transcendent intention behind the singing,” Elling says. “I grew up with music being tied to the consciousness of moving people to a higher plane of experience. Of ecstasy if possible, of healing, of feeling better and being reminded of the humane possibilities. Music should move people to higher planes of consciousness. And help them forget their troubles. One of the definitions of happiness is a feeling of losing your self-consciousness. You’re here now. You fall in love with music because you get in the swing of it and you forget everything but the present moment. That means you’re happy.”