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Album Review: 'The Gate' by Kurt Elling

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Jazz Singer Kurt Elling the Gate
Courtesy of Concord Records
It's official, jazz singer Kurt Elling has sold out. What follows is the track-by-track case against his latest album, The Gate (Concord, 2011:

  • "Matte Kudasia" – A 1981, King Crimson song, based on the Japanese phrase meaning "Please wait for me." The arrangement was, according to Elling, created on the spot by bassist John Patitucci. It lacks the definition of previous bass-focused, laid-back, sleepy arrangements in Elling's discography. This track gives the first glimpse of what's to come: pure vanilla.
  • "Steppin' Out" – A Joe Jackson song from 1982 that actually had a sense of forward motion in its original form. The blues-inflected vocals, conga drums, and jazzy harmonies drown an otherwise entertaining song. It seems as if these songs were selected for their ability to simultaneously stimulate the over-40 crowd while killing Elling's artistic credibility. It shares the rushed, almost hasty quality of Kurt Elling's first album, Close Your Eyes (1995, Blue Note), minus the enthusiasm.
  • "Come Running To Me" – A Herbie Hancock tune that was schmaltzy even for 1977. From his album Sunlight (Columbia, 1977), Hancock actually sings this song through an electric vocal processor called a vocoder. Unfortunately, the '77 Herbie performance is hipper to the tenth degree.

  • "Norwegian Wood" – Although it’s a Beatles song, this track is actually another Herbie Hancock reference. It was overdone when Hancock covered it in 1996 on his pop/jazz fusion album (it's all about the fusion with Herbie), The New Standard (Verve). Except for the stilted reharmonization, the behind-the-beat phrasing of the lyrics, the excessive vocal harmonies, and the shredding electric guitar solo climax, this song fails to differentiate itself from the many iterations we've heard before.
  • "Blue in Green" – If only including a song from Kind of Blue could guarantee great jazz record sales. This song, like every other cover on this album, seem to be a mere vehicle for one particular aspect of Elling's vocal technique: in this case, it’s his breathy falsetto. A number of jazz vocalists have navigated this song with more inspiration, notably Kate McGarry (with Target [Palmetto, 2007]) and Cassandra Wilson (with Traveling Miles [Blue Note, 1999]).
  • "Samurai Cowboy" – Music by bassist Marc Johnson (originally titled "Samurai Hee-Haw" from Bass Desires [ECM, 1985]), lyrics by Kurt Elling. Really the only winner on the album in a jazz sense. Inspired by Bobby McFerrin’s post-production style, Elling performs the accompanying tracks, as well as the melody and vocalese. Bob Mintzer supplies saxophone acrobatics.

  • "After the Love is Gone" - A 1979 hit ballad from Earth, Wind and Fire. Elling's performance is as literal a translation as you will hear by a serious musician. If you've heard the original version (and you probably have if you've spent much time in a dentist office) we now, no doubt, share the same "what the hell?" facial expression.
  • "Golden Lady" - When it's the only Stevie Wonder song (from Inversions [Tamla, 1973]) in the Real Book, you know Kurt Elling's going to do it. Here pianist and frequent Elling collaborator Lawrence Hobgood mistakenly supposes that we've forgotten the worn out piano introduction from Elling's "Man in the Air" (Man in the Air, Blue Note, 2003]). He plays the same one-note phrase, only on a different note from the original. It doesn't matter if you changed it from a C to an F, playing the exact same rhythm on one note is the same intro! I am more convinced now than ever that Elling has outgrown his collaborator. This album should be their last stand, at least for a while.
  • "Nighttown, Lady Bright" - And then, as if "Golden Lady" or "Man in the Air" did not exist, Hobgood mixes it up by starting off with a repeating B! "Nighttown, Lady Bright," a Don Grolnick tune with lyrics by Elling and a poetic interlude consisting of words by Duke Ellington, is somewhat engaging, but an ultimately uninspiring ending to a droll recording. It's also interesting to note that this is the only song on the album not originally written in the 70's or 80's. Elling is showing his age as well as the age of his intended audience with such a sentimental offering.

Very little in The Gate can be considered interesting, much less improvisitory. This album further marks an exodus from art for the jazz singer Kurt Elling. Hopefully he will come to his senses, fire his band and his management, and get back to the spirit of his first six recordings. Jazz singing has come to rely on him for his contributions and will be forced to move on to younger, more adventurous singers if this phase proves to be permanent.

The prosecution rests.

Release Date:

February 8th, 2011 on Concord Records


  • Kurt Elling – Vocals
  • Lawrence Hobgood – Piano
  • John McLean – Guitar
  • Bob Mintzer - Saxophone
  • John Patitucci – Bass
  • Terreon Gully – Drums
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