Elling follows up the Grammy-winning Dedicated to You, his 2009 tribute to the music of John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, with a wider musical palette and a more jazz-oriented ensemble on The Gate. Covers of songs by early-'80s King Crimson and late-'70s Earth, Wind & Fire and Herbie Hancock (during his dreaded vocoder phrase) appear to be a ghastly agenda, as if Elling is putting his hipster-cool reputation to the ultimate test. But with an ace rhythm section like bassist John Patitucci and either Terreon Gulley or Kobie Watkins on drums, along with the gently twisted classicism of pianist Laurence Hobgood's arrangements — not to mention Elling's daredevil approach to tone and phrasing — The Gate unearths an august substance and sense of mobile innovation from nearly every tune.
The King Crimson song is "Matte Kudasai," from Discipline, and Elling makes it more fragile and awestruck than the already-gentle original, with Patitucci's bass the ongoing spine and guitarist John McLean splitting the difference between Crimson's Adrian Belew and the shimmer of Bill Frisell. Hancock's "Come Running To Me" is reconfigured as an intimate jazz workout, featuring Hobgood's restrained fills and Elling harmonizing with himself (a rarity on his discs) over soothing, extended invocations of the title as the singer provides succor to his five-year old daughter. And EW&F's "After the Love Has Gone" again slows the pace and leans on Hobgood's spare elegance and Elling's daring-yet-unerring instincts to avoid both disco and cocktail schmaltz. Fortunately, there's some sprightly cerebral fare as well. "Steppin' Out," Joe Jackson's imitation of Cole Porter, which is frequently on the set list of Elling's live gigs, is a superb example of his vocal artistry. Rather than simply roll with the jazzy urbanity of the song's finger-snapping rhythms, Elling scuffs it up with flatted, "off-key" tones at the end of his phrases, putting nuance and complexity into the upbeat vibe. And his own, brief, "Samurai Cowboy," has a spare, workshop feel, with staccato vocalese that teeters on scat and Bob Minzer's tart sax in the background.
The Gate isn't perfect. I could do without the overblown narration as Elling strains for a dramatic close on Don Grolnick's "Nighttown, Lady Bright," and the arrangement of The Beatles' "Norwegian Wood," trades the beguiling mystery of the original for guitarist McLean's quasi-fusion antics. But, along with the aforementioned tracks above, there's a pair of gems that Elling is wise enough to provide with only minor tweaks — the "Blue In Green" collaboration between Miles Davis and Bill Evans that Miles took with him for Kind of Blue, and Stevie Wonder's wondrous "Golden Lady" from Innervisions.