The Gate: Careful balance, exciting, courageous style

Having finally won a Grammy award (after having been nominated on eight previous occasions) for Dedicated To You, anticipation is understandably high for Kurt Elling’s new album. Whilst Dedicated To You had a concentrated thematic and musical focus, with Elling paying tribute to the famous collaboration between John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, The Gate adopts a broader sweep, incorporating both jazz standards and fresh interpretations of songs from the pop repertoire.
Back once again is Elling’s regular collaborator, arranger and pianist Laurence Hobgood. Also appearing are the superb bassist John Patitucci and, on three tracks, Kobie Watkins, regular drummer with Sonny Rollins. Perhaps surprisingly, the album is produced by Don Was, a producer more associated with mainstream rock and pop acts. Judging by this, he seems well attuned to the rather different demands of acoustic jazz performance. The Gate sounds warm and welcoming – but also very natural and unforced. Elling’s voice sounds as technically masterful and smooth as ever.

Elling seems to be attempting to strike a careful balance between mainstream appeal and unpredictable artistic choices on The Gate. Some of his song selections are judicious, providing comfortable but engaging settings for his smooth, rapturous voice whilst also challenging the expectations of his many admirers. Opening proceedings with King Crimson’s Matte Kudasai is certainly a risky move – but Elling and Hobgood’s interpretation works well, with a wide range of dynamics and textures, as well as an insistent, convincing groove. Although it’s full of creative, adventurous playing, it somehow seems more direct and communicative than Crimson.

Some of the other selections, particularly Joe Jackson’s Steppin’ Out and The Beatles’ Norwegian Wood, might, at first glance, seem a little safer. Herbie Hancock successfully introduced Norwegian Wood into the jazz repertoire on his 1996 album The New Standard, with a wonderfully elegant version. Joe Jackson’s writing is steeped in jazz in the first place. In reality, Elling makes a considerable personal impression on both pieces. His Steppin’ Out swings vibrantly, and has some clever harmonic twists. Norwegian Wood is a superb showcase for Elling’s inventive, asymmetrical phrasing. Amazingly, he makes the song his own.

Elling’s take on Earth, Wind & Fire’s After The Love Has Gone starts impressively. He strips the song of its original sheen and renders it as an affecting, tender ballad. The setting is just right, but Elling overcooks the vocal at times, when a subtle touch would have been preferable. It’s hard to fault the skill in the arrangement of Herbie Hancock’s Come Running To Me (a vocoder-heavy lite funk creation in its original incarnation), but it is burdened by a rather cutesy, cloying feel. Whilst Golden Lady is like Norwegian Wood in its demonstration of Elling’s evocative, masterful phrasing, it somehow still feels a little futile. Stevie Wonder’s original was groovier – and, by losing some of its rhythmic vitality, Elling’s take feels a little neutered.

Perhaps the biggest surprise here is Samurai Cowboy, composed by Marc Johnson, with original lyrics by Elling himself. Its sinewy melody and unusual lyrics make it more reminiscent of Arthur Russell than any jazz singer, and the layered vocal accompaniment hints at the production techniques of pop acts such as Yello or Sparks. Elling has experimented with vocal layering before – but never quite this ecstatically. It’s sure to inflame the ‘but it’s not jazz!’ brigade – but whatever it is, it’s a sophisticated and enjoyable piece of writing. Given that Johnson and Elling are both immersed in the jazz tradition, it’s interesting how free from conventional genre restrictions their writing can be.

In some ways, The Gate is a more exciting album than Dedicated To You. It goes beyond technically supreme homages into the realms of risk-taking and unpredictability. The vibe is nevertheless still every bit as cool, relaxed and controlled as might be expected from Elling. Not everything pays off, but Elling is branching out in courageous style.