Both a virtuoso and a journeyman, a traditionalist and a chance taker, singer Kurt Elling has built a career upon defying expectations while also celebrating the standards of the vocal jazz tradition. An adept vocalist with an eloquent set of skills that find him moving easily between literate, kinetic vocalese, swinging standards, and lyrical balladry, Elling draws you deep into each song.
With his 11th studio album and fifth for Concord, 2015's Passion World, Elling maximizes this eclectic dynamism with a well-curated series of songs that find him exploring compositions and styles from around the globe. The album finds him working with producers Chris Dunn and Bryan Farina as well as longtime collaborators keyboardist Gary Versace, guitarist John McLean, bassist Clark Sommers, and drummer Kendrick Scott. This touring ensemble has backed Elling worldwide, and clearly shares his enthusiasm for interpreting such stylistically disparate material.
Also adding to the album's cornucopia of sounds is a handful of like-minded guests including trumpeter Arturo Sandoval on the elegiac Cuban ballad "Bonita Cuba" and tenor saxophonist Tommy Smith and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra on the lyrical traditional Celtic number "Loch Tay Boat Song." Similarly, German trumpeter Till Brönner adds his soft, melodic trumpet to Richard Galliano's "Billie," reworked here as "The Tangled Road," and featuring lyrics by Elling. Also engaging is Elling's duet with vocalist Sara Gazarek on Brazilian singer/songwriter Dorival Caymmi's buoyant 1944 bossa nova classic "Você Já Foi à Bahia?" And it's not just his jazz chops on display here. Elling delivers an impeccable orchestral-backed rendition of Johannes Brahms' elegiac "Nicht Wandle, Mein Licht (Liebeslieder Walzer Op. 52, No. 17)," and even reworks U2's anthemic "Where the Streets Have No Name" with an uplifting folk and soul-jazz vibe.
Ultimately, that all of Passion World works so beautifully, with each song flowing into the next, is yet another reason why Elling remains one of the premier jazz vocalists in the world.
Four stars: * * * *