The Gate: Breaking through boundaries

For years, jazz singer Kurt Elling has been winning praise for his vocalese work — that is, the writing and singing of lyrics over improvised jazz solos. Elling has set his own lyrics to the improvised solos of jazz giants like Wayne Shorter, Keith Jarrett and Pat Metheny.
He’s also won raves for his interpretations of jazz classics, like “Dedicated To You,” his 2009 live album, where he collaborated with the Laurence Hobgood Trio to create their own interpretations of several songs from the 1963 classic “John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman,” along with other that had the same vibe that Coltrane and Hartman had created.

But for his latest project, Elling went in a somewhat different direction, lending his interpretive skills to a collection of songs that includes several tunes from outside the jazz idiom — including covers of pop/rock songs by the likes of King Crimson, the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Joe Jackson and Earth Wind & Fire. That album, “The Gate,” released Feb. 8, also showcases Elling and his quartet bringing their own, musically adventurous sensibilities to the works of jazz icons Miles Davis, Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock.

Throughout, Elling and his accompanists push, and break through, the boundaries that, in the minds of many, tend to separate jazz from pop / rock, and find new musical possibilities in the process.

He cooked up the idea for the project while on the road, thinking of what songs would best lend themselves to his talents — and to the talents of his sympathetic backing musicians.

“I’m on the road about 200 nights a year, so I spend a lot of time out there thinking abut music, and what I would like to do, in piece-by-piece fashion,” says Elling. “I tend to follow my intuition, and then let the ideas sort of percolate in my mind over time. Some of these are things I just stumble on, sometimes another musicians will turn me on to something, or I come across things while I’m doing my homework for another project.”

Elling has done jazz versions of pop songs before, but “usually it was just to add a bit of spice,” says Elling from New York, after he’d just completed a photo shoot for a European magazine.

“But in this case, we were looking for a certain kind of sonic atmosphere, which would take advantage of the band’s talents. We wanted to find songs that were a good match to the players, who were adapting to me, and me to them. It was just a matter of the planets lining up in the right way.”

Initially, says Elling, he was thinking about doing “a John Scofield type of record — you know, something with a lot more boogaloo, a record that didn’t have to be something that the jazz historians would like. Not that I wanted to move away from jazz, but I wanted to bring the material to my own consciousness, as well as to John McLean’s and Laurence Hobgood’s.” (Hobgood is Elling’s longtime pianist and arranger; while McLean played guitar on the album. Both are in his current touring band.)

Among the pop / rock songs that get the distinctive Elling-and-band treatment on “The Gate” are Crimson’s “Matte Kudasai,” the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” Wonder’s “Golden Lady,” Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out” and Earth Wind & Fire’s “After the Love Has Gone.”

“I’ve been a Crimson fan since college, and ‘Matte Kudasai’” — from Crimson’s 1981 “Discipline” album — “reminds me of some of my happiest times,” says Elling. “I always wanted a reason to record this song and tip my cap to them. It was one of the first pieces we recorded, and it set the tone for the album.

“I wanted to pick a song of theirs that I could do justice to in terms of respecting the original composition but still pull it into my orbit — as opposed to so many of their pieces that would take a lot of consideration to break down and put back together without destroying the singularity of their consciousness. Although, I do have some ideas for ‘Three of a Perfect Pair,’ says Elling wryly, referring to the title song from Crimson’s ’84 release.

For “Norwegian Wood,” Elling and his band just “followed the melody — the way we heard the rhythm of the melodic line, and that drove everything else about it.”

Wonder’s “Golden Lady” initially provided some obstacles, says Elling, because the musicians were dubious about deconstructing the rhythm and re-assembling it into the 7/8 time signature Elling wanted to employ. “I had worked it out in my head when I was on the road, and sometimes it’s hard to verbally convey something about music. But once you play or sing a representation of what it is you want to do, it’s easier for people to understand.”

One of the highlights of the disc is “Blue in Green,” from Miles Davis’ iconic 1959 album “Kind of Blue.” Hobgood plays an ostinato pattern “that I knew would keep it in the jazz camp, but also stretch out and make some things happen.”

And then, near the end of the song, the rhythm section spontaneously kicks into an explosive, exciting interplay. “We were supposed to do the fade there, but it just happened organically, and I was really proud of them for having that level of musicianship that they could respond to the moment like that.”

The album closes with a take on “Nighttown, Lady Bright,” which was composed by Don Grolnick and featured spoken words written by Duke Ellington. Elling took the piece and added some new lyrics that reflected some of his own experiences.

“The harmonies and melody just seemed to touch me, it sounded like what it sounds like when you’re coming home from a gig and it’s late, and most of the city is asleep, and if sort of feels like you have the streets to yourself,” describes Elling. “I remembered reading in Duke’s memoirs, what he said about the night life, and night people, so I wanted to bring something of that to it.

“Part of being a jazz musician means investigating jazz history and not only remembering the beautiful parts, but conveying them in a way that helps people fall in love with the jazz idiom.”