On ‘The Gate,’ Kurt Elling reintreprets songs by everyone from Miles Davis to the Beatles

It’s only fitting that Kurt Elling will celebrate the arrival of his latest release, “The Gate,” with two performances Sunday evening at Nighttown in Cleveland Heights.
The last track on the album is “Nighttown, Lady Bright.” The after-hours ballad is a reworking of “Nighttown” by the late pianist Don Grolnick, with new lyrics by Elling and a spoken-word excerpt from Duke Ellington’s autobiography.

“The lyrics came [from] the emotional resonance that I have with being done with work when the sun is about to come up,” Elling said by phone recently from New York City.

This professional night owl has been keeping more traditional hours lately, though, thanks to his five-year-old daughter.

“No matter what I do with my night, I’ve got to be up to pitch in at 7:30 in the morning, to get her off to school,” said Elling, 43.

With a laugh, the Grammy Award-winning jazz crooner added: “It doesn’t mean I can’t take a nap when I get home.”

Before a music career beckoned, Elling studied the philosophy of religion at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School.

His debut album, “Close Your Eyes,” came out in 1995.

“I’ve got more low notes than I had when I started,” Elling said.

His baritone has “a different kind of resonance now,” he said.

“That’s natural to physiology, and that’s natural to maturing. I hope that I’m also maturing emotionally as a human being as things go on.

“That changes up your sound more than anything.”

On “The Gate,” his supporting cast includes John McLean on guitar, Bob Mintzer on tenor sax, John Patitucci on bass and Terreon Gully on drums, as well as longtime collaborator Laurence Hobgood on piano. Don Was (whose other clients have included Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Brian Wilson) produced the album.

It opens with “Matte Kudasai,” an exotic number by the prog-rock group King Crimson.

“It’s been on my mind for quite a long time,” Elling said of the song.

“I listened to a lot of King Crimson back in the day. It seemed like a logical place to go, because I’ve always had it in my head.

“That’s the way I make a lot of moves. It’s not really an intellectual game. It’s an intuitive game. You’re just following your instincts.”

Alongside gems by Miles Davis (“Blue in Green”) and Herbie Hancock (“Come Running to Me”), Elling also takes a swing at hits associated with Joe Jackson (“Steppin’ Out”) and Earth, Wind & Fire (“After the Love Has Gone”).

Elling offers a moody take on the Beatles oldie “Norwegian Wood,” too.

“I haven’t been afraid of John Coltrane or Miles Davis or Bill Evans or Wayne Shorter or Herbie Hancock,” Elling said. “Why would I be afraid of the Beatles?”

Does he get flak from jazz purists for fraternizing with pop material?

“I don’t really get flak as such,” Elling said.

“Jazz people — at least the ones I hang out with — tend to be more about the music itself. It’s more about what you do with it than what it starts out as, you know? It’s about what you make out of it. You can start from any place. It’s where you end up that’s important.”