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Jazz album review: Kurt Elling's 'The Gate'

February 9, 2011 |  1:05 pm

Thegate No matter what the room, chances are Kurt Elling would be the coolest one in it. An unabashed hipster (in the pre-American Apparel sense of the word), the jazz vocalist’s velvety, elastic baritone has a way of making itself comfortable in a wide range of genres, most recently with the live John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman tribute album, “Dedicated to You.”

On “The Gate,” he teams with producer Don Was to tackle a variety of standards as well as covers from the pop songbook as unpredictable as they are rewarding. Just when it seems the Beatles have been reworked in just about every conceivable way, Elling wrings further romantic nuance from a smoothly tweaked take on “Norwegian Wood” that features a biting, bluesy solo from guitarist John McLean. Aided by longtime collaborator Laurence Hobgood on piano, Elling strips the ’80s schmaltz from Earth, Wind & Fire’s “After the Love Is Gone” and reveals the melancholy soul underneath, and even prog titans King Crimson get filtered through Elling’s nocturnal vision with a swooning take on the 1981 ballad “Matte Kudasai.”

Reworkings of Herbie Hancock’s “Come Running to Me” and Miles Davis’ “Blue in Green” carry a lush sweetness that nearly becomes cloying, but Elling’s unflappable daring shines throughout. It’s not an easy trick to honor a song’s spirit while redrawing it in your own image, but it’s a very cool one.

Kurt Elling
“The Gate”
Three stars (out of four)

-- Chris Barton

Comments () | Archives (4)

Elling is an undeniable talent with a rich, evocative voice. He is also an incredibly annoying singer. He is a scenery-chewing ham who slows songs down to a crawl so he can get every last bit of theatricality out of each and every syllable in the lyrics. He turns the lightly wistful "Norwegian Wood" into a ponderous bore, and when he "strips the '80s schmaltz" from "After the Love is Gone," he demonstrates that the "schmaltz" (together with a catchy tune that almost disappears here) was what made the song worth listening to.

The two tracks on this album I enjoyed most were ones that Barton didn't mention: A relaxed and loungey version of Joe Jackson's "Steppin' Out" and a reverent, full-tempo rendition of Stevie Wonder's "Golden Lady". I would have been a lot happier with the album if the Elling who had fun with these two tunes was the one that dominated, and not the Elling who "wrings further ... nuance" from songs.

I feel for men who choose to sing jazz, it is an almost impossible balance to achieve. Very few have done so. they are the exception who prove the rule. For as James Brown said, jazz is an advanced form of the Blues. To maintain the raw emotion yet sophisticated enough to be a musical instrument oneself and evoke images and emotions through words, it tests ones manhood and puts it on display. Those of pop like Sinatra just serenade and wow the ladies. Those who are bluesy dont always achieve, only a few like Joe Williams have, though Tony Bennett and the under heard Johnny Hartman had both. Most end up whispery and soft, have to be clever like a Mose Alison to be interesting.

The ladies have the best of both. The sophisticated like Dinah Washington and the everything Sarah Vaughn, and the worldly like Billie Holiday and, well Dinah Washington, she had both. The list of incredible women jaz singers is long and many have distinct voices, from Abbey Lincoln to Cassandra Wilson. And then perhaps the best and most underrated, Betty Carter, the greatest as a musician and mentor.

It is tough on a man, Mark Murphy found a nice balance but lacked the power. One almost has to choose who one is singing for, pleasing women or stimulating a man's ardor for women and life. i havent heard a man who can do what Carter does, I dont think one can have the power, inventiveness, musicality, masculinity and sensuality all at the same time.

So I wish Elling luck, though he has been around awhile, but remember, it is an advanced form of the blues,. Take that away, and you got sophisticated fluff.

Does Michael have an ax to grind? I happened to be reading about The Gate today and found nearly the same language in a negative review on Amazon.com. A chacun son gout , but I rarely have the motivation to diss an artist -- least of all in multiple forums. For me, KE's music brings me great joy and The Gate is no exception.

The reason I missed the "biting, bluesy solo" on Elling's version of Norwegian Wood was that I was overcome by retching at the rest of the song. This CD stinks.


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