It’s not even close. Kurting Elling is far and away the boldest, most talented and consistent male jazz singer working today. Since his Blue Note debut in 1995, Close Your Eyes, Elling has presented a compelling case for the jazz vocal tradition. Elling combines the sonic richness of Sinatra, the beat adventure of Mark Murphy, and the modern cool Cassandra Wilson. He meshes hip and slick, and it’s starting to look like he’s never going to make a bad album.
The Gate, Elling’s third Concord release, is the strongest of this recent batch — and that’s saying something. The previous disc, Dedicated to You was an ambitious updating of the great Coltrane/Johnny Hartman recording, integrating a string quartet, and it turned Elling’s attention back in time to a jazz classic. The new disc, in contrast, is Elling’s most contemporary album.
Along with super-producer Don Was, Elling has chosen a set of songs split between jazz classics and classic rock and soul. Miles Davis’s “Blue and Green” is given an adventurous reading, but so is “Norwegian Wood”. A rarely covered Herbie Hancock tune is interpreted, but so is King Crimson and Earth, Wind, and Fire. As usual, Elling gets brilliant support from pianist Lawrence Hobgood and a team of strong jazz players, but this album finds Elling overdubbing vocals to create chilling harmony effects at critical moments.
In essence, The Gate slyly applies a few narrow pop tactics to its songs, while still being a daring jazz record. Yet you’re likely to recognize most of these songs from their radio play during your lifetime. What makes it so clear that this is Elling’s work is that this clever combination of tactics never sounds contrived. For all his craft as a singer, Kurt Elling projects focus and integrity.
Elling sounds utterly assured and natural, for example, on his simple arrangement of the Joe Jackson tune “Steppin’ Out”. The opening piano lick is taken straight from the pop recording, but Hobgood uses it elastically to set up the melody. Elling seems to be singing the tune straight, but then flats a single note to make it his own. After the piano solo, Elling mutates the tune a bunch of ways, repeating a single line, changing keys, deconstructing the piece like an abstract artist. What seems utterly like a lark at first becomes much more.
“Norwegian Wood” also grows more intriguing as it goes on. Hobgood and the rhythm section start the tune by settling into a syncopated groove that allows Elling to jog the familiar melody around some hip rhythmic accents. But toward the end of the second verse, Elling’s vocals rush in with wordless harmony, surging like a wave, and then he scats briefly atop that sound, cracking off into a keening high harmony. It’s dramatic, and what follows is a distorted guitar solo unlike anything featured on an Elling recording before.
The Hancock tune, “Come Running to Me”, is sinuous and sly, impressionistic and cool, and a perfect blend of jazz and pop. Taken from Hancock’s fusion period, the tune also features layered vocal harmonies that don’t sound quite like anything in Elling’s ouvre. “Matte Kudasai”, the King Crimson tune, feels similarly balanced between beauty and freshness, with a single line of vocal harmony that perfectly sets off the clean, human sound of Elling’s voice on the rest of the track.
The hipster in Elling, the guy who has always been a vocalese fan, is here too. “Samurai Cowboy” is a jazz tune by bassist Marc Johnson with playful lyrics by Elling that allow him to zip and zoom all around what sounds like a mostly a cappella arrangement. Elling sounds reasonably like a saxophone here (mimicking Bob Mintzer’s contribution on tenor to the track in other places). That same sensibility takes on a more eerie pleasure during the cover of Miles Davis and Bill Evans’s “Blue in Green”. The band plays with a shimmering freedom, with washes of guitar chords and percussive exploration underpinning a vocal that starts ethereal and grows stronger and more daring. Again, Was has Elling using selective vocal harmonies to make this approach sound more deliberate and rich. Beautiful, with a frantic climax for the piano and guitar that then gives way to silence.
There are more treasures here: Stevie Wonder’s “Golden Lady” and “After the Love Is Gone” by Earth, Wind and Fire. “Nighttown, Lady Bright” is an original that makes use of a reading from Ellington’s book, Music Is My Mistress, in classic Elling fashion, mixing music with words.
Unlike most jazz efforts that feature a great weight of rock-era “new standards”, The Gate finds a middle ground that is neither “jazzing up rock songs” nor merely adding grooves or backbeats to jazz material. Elling, Hobgood, and Was are able to add little patches of new technique to the basic Elling approach, sure, but they don’t mess too much with the singer’s sturdy formula. The arrangements for his rhythm section are still hip and distinctive, and his singing remains gleaming with vocal technique while still cognizant of the loose, hipster strain of jazz singing that runs through Eddie Jefferson and Mark Murphy.
The Gate is fresh but still swinging, pop but plenty-plenty jazz. It is, if you will, Kurt Elling Plus, which seems like a good value in any economy. With great songs, a bunch of surprise, and sterling players on hand, it’s already a strong contender for the vocal jazz album of 2011.