Vocal CD of the Month – “Kurt Elling: The Gate”

Kurt Elling’s “The Gate” is his most provocative, hippest and coolest recording to date. Produced by the Grammy-winning Don Was, this nine-track set features the vocalist providing singing lessons (in terms of creative phrasing, astounding breath control, gorgeous tone, and the use of silence as a musical element) in the company of longtime pianist/musical director Laurence Hobgood, saxophonist Bob Mintzer, guitarist John McLean (providing lessons in subtleties), bassist John Patitucci, drummers Terreon Gulley & Kobie Watkins, and Lenny Castro on unobstrusive percussion (in four tracks only).
The material ranges from jazz classics such as Miles Davis/Bill Evans’ “Blue in Green” (the album highlight, with lyrics by Al Jarreau) to Herbie Hancock’s groovy “Come Running to Me,” including highly individualized readings of “After The Love Has Gone” (the David Foster-Jay Graydon-Bill Champlin mega hit for Earth, Wind & Fire), King Crimson’s “Matte Kudasai” (the opening track), Joe Jackson’s delightful “Steppin’ Out,” and Stevie Wonder’s “Golden Lady,” to the original “Samurai Cowboy,” co-written with Marc Johnson.

Elling, who has finally completed the transition from a vocalist heavily influenced by Mark Murphy to become his own man, also added lyrics to “Nightown, Lady Bright,” one of the many great tunes composed by the late (and extremely underrated) pianist Don Grolnick. The 9-minute closing tracks includes Elling, backed by special effects, reading an excepert from Duke Ellington’s bio “Music Is My Mistress.” The only less interesting track is an uninspired rendition of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” but saved by an excellent rock-ish guitar solo. Anyway, this CD already has my vote for Best Vocal Jazz Album of the Year.

The album, beautifully engineered, was recorded by Chris Allen @ Sear Sound, New York, NY, on March 15, 16 & 17, 2010, with additional recording & mixing by Seth Presant @ Village Studios, Los Angeles, CA.

****1/2 (musical performance)
***** (sonic quality)