Kurt Elling’s The Gate: From King Crimson to amen

The successor to a Grammy winner is eagerly awaited, then examined under a high-powered microscope. Will it be as good? Will it be better? Will it be a letdown?
Fans of jazz singer Kurt Elling who have waited a year and a half for the follow-up to 2009’s Dedicated to You, his tribute to/reinterpretation of the John Coltrane/Johnny Hartman classic, will be thrilled by The Gate. Listeners new to Elling (and to pianist/arranger Laurence Hobgood, Elling’s longtime collaborator) will want to catch up on earlier albums.

Among male jazz singers today, right now, Elling stands alone. He simply has the most exceptional voice out there. Famously spanning four octaves, resonant and warm, it mostly lives in baritone land but can rise to a dazzling falsetto. He’s a master of dynamics and phrasing, texture and tone, and his swing seems effortless, like breathing. One moment he can woo you with a tender ballad, the next astonish you with rapid-fire, acrobatic scatting. He’s a romantic and a hipster, sincere and playful, authentically charismatic. He writes his own vocalese lyrics, many of which are pure poetry.

It seems there’s nothing he can’t do, and if he’s increasingly being mentioned in the same breath as Frank Sinatra and Mel Torme and Louis Armstrong, it’s because he deserves it.

Like most real jazz artists, Elling is best experienced live, where you can see firsthand the choices he’s making and the risks he’s taking, his close working relationship with Hobgood, the way he uses his whole body to deliver a song. After seeing Elling live in Ottawa in December, jazz writer Peter Hum described him as a “musical maximalist, setting his sights on rendering one tour de force after another.” I’ve seen him several times over the years and have always been completely caught up in the music, whether he’s performing with his own band or a big band in Fargo, with Stefon Harris or Nancy King or Richard Galliano.

Between live performances—and if you’re a jazz fan, especially a fan of jazz vocals, one live Elling performance is not enough—his excellent CDs are the next best thing.

The Gate is a logical and satisfying step in the ascent that began in 1995 with Close Your Eyes. After Dedicated to You, recorded live in Lincoln Center’s Allen Room, Elling returned to the studio for The Gate, this time with superstar producer Don Was, who first heard Elling on the radio and “got chills.” In a digital press kit produced by Elling’s label, Concord, Was calls Elling “the greatest singer I ever heard in my life.”

Elling’s band includes Hobgood on piano, Bob Mintzer on saxophone, John McLean on guitar, John Patitucci on bass, percussionist Lenny Castro, and two drummers, Terreon Gulley and Kobie Watkins. At first glance, the track list is a bit alarming: songs by King Crimson and Stevie Wonder, the Beatles, Joe Jackson, and Earth, Wind & Fire.

Don’t worry, jazz fans: This is not a pop/crossover album. That’s clear from the first track, King Crimson’s “Matte Kudasai,” which opens with Patitucci’s bass and a splash from the cymbals before becoming a showcase for Elling’s voice, which only gets more beautiful with each passing year. No fireworks here, just a gracious welcome, an introduction to McLean’s lovely guitar, and a surprise: a single phrase (“When was the night so long?”) when Elling’s voice is layered and he harmonizes with himself. A hint of things to come.

If you’ve heard Elling live in the past few years, you’ve probably heard his hard-swinging take on Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out.” Elling makes it his own rhythmically and also melodically by landing a half-step down at the ends of two key phrases (“Now the mist across the window hides the lines…. We’re so tired of all the darkness in our lives”). Midway through, he skips a verse and steps back so Laurence can solo. He adds his own lyrics and alters others.

Herbie Hancock recorded “Come Running to Me” (in 1977) with a vocoder. Elling turns this fusion fave into a gift for his 5-year-old daughter. More layered voices in the phrase “come running to me,” added one at a time with each syllable, and again when the phrase is repeated like a mantra. At the end, Elling performs his own lyrics (“You don’t have to be afraid/not anymore/I’m here with you, baby/I’m yours, I’m yours”) over a small chorus of Kurts singing “come running to me.” It’s slow and sweet and soulful.

I’m guessing that Hobgood wrote the wonderful new arrangement for the Lennon/McCartney tune “Norwegian Wood,” with its chordy, melodic piano part. A song we’ve all heard a million times is further transformed by the fresh rhythmic treatment of the lyrics, in which words and phrases are stretched like taffy. Midway through, McLean gets a rock-god guitar solo. Once more, Elling harmonizes with himself. This is a very pleasant effect; if one Kurt is good, more Kurts are better, right? It could have been overused—it almost is, but not quite. We probably won’t hear it in live performance; I’m not sure I would want to hear it. Studio effects are fine in studio recordings but let’s leave them out of live jazz shows, please.

“Blue in Green,” an homage to Bill Evans and Miles Davis, is translucent and shimmering. Soft curling chords on the piano, rolling waves from the cymbals, singing Bill Frisell-style notes on the guitar, and Elling’s voice, open and breathy, multi-layered, then soaring impossibly up and up into an ethereal falsetto. This is the halfway point of the CD and its glowing centerpiece.

“Samurai Cowboy” (called “Kabuki Cowboy” in performance at Gustavus Adolphus, Elling’s alma mater, in 2009) is a complete change in mood, a tune by bassist Marc Johnson (from Bass Desires) with sassy, complex vocalese lyrics by Elling over a repeated vocal chorus (bum-dum-dum, ch-ch-ch-ch) and spirited blowing by Mintzer. Question: What’s a “skully hutch”?

Two jazzy versions of pop tunes follow: a yearning and passionate take on Earth, Wind & Fire’s “After the Love Has Gone” (interestingly, a tune where Was could easily have multiplied Elling’s voice—listen to the original—but chose not to) and an upbeat version of Stevie Wonder’s “Golden Lady” with a fine solo by Mintzer and a taste (a very small taste, an amuse-bouche) of scatting by Elling. They round out the CD nicely and lead us into the finale.

In “Nighttown, Lady Bright,” Elling sings his own vocalese lyrics to a song by the late Don Grolnick. After a brief instrumental interlude led by Patitucci, with Hobgood comping and brushes on the drums, he reads a selection from Duke Ellington’s memoir, Music Is My Mistress: “Night Life is cut out of a very luxurious, royal-blue bolt of velvet….” Complete with city sounds—traffic, horns, a policeman’s whistle, trains—it’s a cinematic glimpse into what it means to be a jazz musician, to work nights (as Roy Hargrove said at the Dakota earlier this week, “Jazz is late night”), to return home (if you’re not on the road) through empty streets in the wee hours. After crediting Ellington and laying back for a solo by Hobgood, Elling returns to “Nighttown” and his lyrics, and with just over a minute remaining on the song and the CD, the layering of Elling’s voice reaches the peak of its beauty: The word “overhear” becomes a full choir that sings us to the end and the final word, “Amen.”

With Was as producer, The Gate is polished to a high gleam, yet except for a few studio tricks, it’s a romantic, swinging, eclectic and enjoyable Kurt Elling album, with the emphasis on album. Download a single or two and you’ll miss the full effect. In some ways, The Gate is more subtle than previous albums; there’s no bring-down-the-house, big-finish “Tanya Jean” or “Dolores Dream,” “Resolution” or “A New Body and Soul,” no mystical “love poem from God” (the moon/moth poem Elling often includes in “My Foolish Heart”). But there is the exquisite “Blue in Green.” “Norwegian Wood” may knock the Beatles’ version out of your head, once you’ve heard it a few times. “Come Running to Me” haunts as well as beckons. “Samurai Cowboy” is cheeky fun. There is much to hear, savor, and think about on first and repeated listenings.

Is it better than Dedicated to You? That’s an apples-and-oranges question. Dedicated to You was a project CD, born out of a commission for the 2006 Chicago Jazz Festival that became a concert, a tour, and a successful recording. The Gate is, as Elling told Chicago Jazz Magazine, “an obvious step forward, specifically down the road we were going down when we did Nightmoves, which was in its way another step down the road from everything else we’ve done…it all seems to be a very clear advance for me.”

If you’re wondering why the new CD is called The Gate, here’s what Elling told Peter Hum:

Well, it’s a reference to a lot of things. It’s a reference to “swings like a gate.” It’s a reference to the Gateless Gate that you’ll find in the East. To the gate that you’ll pass through between the sacred and the profane that is around you all the time, that is awaiting every step, that you fall into, that you experiment with from childhood on… And also, every recording is a gate. Every recording is something that you pass through, that makes a new statement, that takes you into a new territory.