Kurt Elling: Winning Spins

During his 14-year recording career, vocalist Kurt Elling has received Grammy nominations for every CD he’s released. Of course, he didn’t actually win for any of his first seven mostly original efforts. But he finally collected a Best Jazz Vocal Album Grammy for the themed 2009 release Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman. Grammy voters love tributes, especially to classic collaborations like the self-titled 1963 LP by saxophonist John Coltrane and vocalist Johnny Hartman.
Elling splits the difference between homage and originality on his new release The Gate, eschewing a theme but focusing mainly on creative arrangements of pop covers. And the unorthodox selections, plus impressive performances by the singer and his all-star sidemen, make it likely that his nominations streak will continue.

The Chicago-born singer’s vocalese skills sometimes fuel a hipster persona that obscures his musicality, but The Gate showcases some of the four-octave baritone’s best pure singing. The Don Was-produced disc opens with the unlikeliest of jazz covers, a group arrangement (with Bob Belden) of “Matte Kudasai,” from the 1981 Discipline album by progressive rock godfathers King Crimson.

Bassist John Patitucci, drummer and percussionist Terreon Gulley and longtime Elling pianist Laurence Hobgood morph the original guitar-driven ballad into unrecognizable territory with their delicate intro. Only Elling’s reverent vocal—and the solo of underrated Chicago guitarist John McLean—hint at the soaring contributions of King Crimson’s singing guitarist Adrian Belew.

Other pleasant surprises come courtesy of 1970s R&B icons. Hobgood’s arrangement of the Earth, Wind & Fire hit “After the Love Has Gone” features a dramatic building intro, an aching Elling vocal that covers the breadth of his range, and subtle nuances by tenor saxophonist Bob Mintzer. The pianist also arranged Stevie Wonder’s “Golden Lady,” on which Elling cops some of Wonder’s signature phrasing through lines both sung and scatted.

Two other pop covers fall short by comparison. The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” suffers from a forcibly different arrangement by Hobgood and Elling that removes the original’s Middle Eastern elements. Its highlight is the absurd middle solo by McLean, who seemed to realize that the only approach to this staggered, outside arrangement was to take it further out. Hobgood also arranged Joe Jackson’s 1980s pop hit “Steppin’ Out,” which, in contrast, is too much like the original. The swinging shuffle was inspired by trumpeter Nicholas Payton’s version, but that take didn’t feature a clichéd Elling vocal that goes straight to Vegas without passing go.

However, those prove mere hiccups. Miles Davis’ “Blue in Green,” from the 1959 classic Kind of Blue, features Hobgood echoing Bill Evans as Elling hits soaring, sustained falsetto notes that approximate an instrument more than a human voice. The singer even harmonizes with himself on lyrics written by Al Jarreau and Frank Martin. Elling also adds vocal harmonies to the Herbie Hancock-Allee Willis composition “Come Running to Me,” arranged with Belden and Hobgood and highlighted by the pianist’s playful, intermittent note choices.

A pair of original compositions stand out. On the infectious “Samurai Cowboy,” written by Elling and bassist Marc Johnson, the singer is obviously having fun, sounding like he’s reciting stream-of consciousness lyrics over his own multilayered vocal tracks. The only instrumental accompaniment is a sparse, 6/8-timed rhythmic cadence by percussionist Lenny Castro, plus humorous blasts by Mintzer, who sounds like he’s literally playing in a different room.

The nine-minute closer, “Nighttown, Lady Bright,” was composed by the late pianist Don Grolnick, and Elling’s additional lyrics paint a cinematic portrait of a jazz musician’s life. Patitucci’s evocative solo, and the singer’s spoken recitation of words written by Duke Ellington in his 1973 autobiography Music is My Mistress, close The Gate with supreme elegance.