Kurt Elling: Peerless

Peerless is not a word to throw about, but applied to Kurt Elling it feels thoroughly accurate. Over the last few years, with the albums Nightmoves and Dedicated To You, he has moved from being a jazz singer to the jazz singer, to my ears and, if his increased popularity is anything to go by, many other ears, too.
The Gate is a step forward for a variety of reasons. The material is, for the most part, unusual; the techniques Kurt uses are more expansive; the production is bigger and rounder. All feel like natural extensions from a musician who had just made a near perfect studio album of songs linked around a theme and a live re-interpretation of a classic jazz/vocal classic by John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman.

First the material. Kurt begins The Gate with Matte Kudasai, from the 1981 King Crimson album, Discipline, follows it with Steppin’ Out from Joe Jackson’s 1982 disc Night And Day. After The Love Has Gone was a hit for Earth, Wind and Fire in 1979, and Golden Lady was written by Stevie Wonder for his 1973 album Innervisions. There’s a theme emerging…

But, in between all that, is the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood, Herbie Hancock’s Come Running To Me, Miles Davis’s Blue In Green, and two Elling re-workings of instrumental tunes by Marc Johnson and Don Grolnick, the latter with some spoken words from Duke Ellington’s autobiography inserted in the middle.

Kurt has harmonised with himself before, but has used the technique sparingly – at the climax of his version of Pat Metheny’s Minuano, for example. Here, he uses it extensively and to mind-blowing effect.

Hancock used a vocoder for the vocal on his Come Running To Me; not only does Elling work the tricky intervals of the vocal line without any electronic assistance, he adds some stunning harmonies in overdubs. He also reinterprets the song as one for his daughter – it’s a profound declaration of a father’s caring love.

The cool and multi-layered, colourwash feel of Blue In Green is perfect for the harmony approach and, again, Elling uses his huge vocal range to stack up the rich falsetto overlays. Norwegian Wood uses multiple vocals too, but is also striking for its tricky timing and a monster guitar solo from John McLean.

McLean’s rock approach is one of the innovations producer Don Was brings to the party. Was, well-known as half of Was (Not Was) and producer to Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and Brian Wilson among many others, brings a rich audio quality to the proceedings and seems to have helped Elling to realise his dream by releasing him from self-production while still imposing ridiculously high standards.

If I have just the slightest caveats, it’s that, much as I love both Earth Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder, I’m not sure that the tunes chosen quite hold up to Elling’s rigorous treatments – both are quite repetitive and, depending upon my mood, they sometimes tend to outstay their welcomes.

But those are really minor quibbles. The performances from pianist Laurence Hopgood, from guest saxophonist Bob Mintzer, from bassist John Patitucci, and from drummers Terreon Gulley, Kobie Watkins and Lenny Castro, are all exemplary.

But this is really one man’s album. Kurt Elling makes each song he sings something new and somehow more complete than you’ve ever heard it before.