Kurt Elling keeps it bittersweet

With the poise of a World War II-era crooner, the patois of a Beat poet and the searching gaze of seminary student, jazz vocalist Kurt Elling isn’t likely to be confused for Mick Jagger any time soon. But for Don Was, who produced “The Gate,” Elling’s new album exploring contemporary rock and pop tunes, watching the singer work with longtime pianist and creative foil Laurence Hobgood reminded him of the capaciously creative collaboration of Jagger and Keith Richards.
While “The Gate” doesn’t include any tunes by the Stones, Elling’s eighth album features an intriguing mix of songs by equally unlikely sources such as King Crimson, Earth, Wind & Fire and Joe Jackson. According to Was, the alchemy that transformed this disparate session into a strikingly cohesive program flows from Elling and Hobgood’s gift for drilling down to a lyric’s essence.

“In the end, it all comes down to great songs and great performances,” Was says. “The groove or the way you voice the chords is ephemeral, it’s not the emotional core of these songs. Recording with Kurt and Laurence was a lot like working with Mick and Keith.”

Elling and Hobgood will be celebrating the release of “The Gate” at Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood, opening a three-night stand Wednesday with guitarist John McLean, drummer Ulysses Owens and bassist Harish Raghavan. Already firmly established as his generation’s most commanding and inventive male jazz singer, Elling makes a seductive case to some reluctant critics who have acknowledged his musical ingenuity but remained cold to his self-possessed stage persona.

It wasn’t, however, the album that he planned to make with Was. Rather than delving into a set of songs driven by low-down boogaloo, funk and shuffle grooves, he ended up exploring a program of bittersweet ballads, similar to the emotional terrain he’s mapped on previous albums.

“I thought I had some Sco in me,” says Elling, 43, referring to the funk-laden jazz guitarist John Scofield. “I started out to make an album that was a little dancier, a Charlie Hunter kind of record. And that’s still something I’d like to get to. But I’m a pretty introspective guy. If you’re going to be transparent, you’re going to have to let the music come that wants to come.”

Following his emotional compass has served Elling well. Since his 1995 debut on Blue Note, “Close Your Eyes,” he’s taken on a leadership role in jazz, a status all too rare given the fragmented nature of the scene since the 1970s. Several years ago, he spearheaded the multigenerational male jazz vocalist showcase Four Brothers, with Kevin Mahogany, his rough contemporary, and underappreciated elder statesmen Jon Hendricks and Mark Murphy, his two most profound influences. Lately he’s been giving props to brilliant rising singers like Theo Bleckmann, Becca Stevens, Gregory Porter and J.D. Walter.

“I put Four Brothers together because I wanted to spend time with Jon and Mark, to be in their presence and hear their stories,” Elling says. “It was a really selfish motivation. As far as younger people, I’m happy to mention other singers who are pushing the music forward. I know how hard it’s been for me to get my thing out there.”

Last year marked a watershed for Elling. After his six previous albums earned Grammy nominations, his Concord Jazz debut, “Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman,” won the jazz vocal album Grammy, making him the first male singer to take home the trophy since Bobby McFerrin in 1993. “The Gate” seems likely to open Elling’s musical world to new fans with its bold reimagining of songs like Earth, Wind & Fire’s “After the Love Has Gone” and King Crimson’s “Matte Kudasi.”

A lifelong jazz lover, the former rock star turned Grammy-winning producer Was had been smitten with Elling’s music ever since hearing his smoldering version of Stephen Sondheim’s “Not While I’m Around” on KKZZ-FM (88.1) while driving to a recording session.

“It was a stunning performance that made me pull over,” Was recalls. “Then I really started listening to Kurt’s records. I think he’s a giant among vocalists. I would say I rank him up there with Shirley Horn, someone who doesn’t throw away a syllable.”

If Elling is a giant, he grew into that prodigious stature through methodic self-invention. Raised near Chicago in a music-steeped household — his father was a Lutheran choral director — Elling grew up singing in church, and he still possesses the precise technique and pitch that comes from immersion in the classical sacred canon.

While studying for a graduate degree at the University of Chicago Divinity School, he found himself increasingly drawn to jazz, and he cut his teeth on the vibrant Chicago scene in the early 1990s under the tutelage of veteran masters like saxophonists Von Freeman, Ed Petersen and Eddie Johnson.

It was at a jam session at the Green Mill that he first encountered Hobgood. They quickly forged a close musical bond that’s paying steep creative dividends, particularly when it comes to exposing the raw emotional undercurrents coursing through even the bounciest pop.

“If you look at any successful pop tune, short of ABBA, there is almost always some darker implicit meaning than what’s reflected in the original version,” Hobgood says. “Kurt’s a complicated guy, and in his delivery of lyrics you can feel all his complexity.”