In his years on the Concord Jazz label, Kurt Elling has recorded several impressive concept albums, and his latest disc "Passion World" may be his most ambitious project to date. It collects love songs from all over the globe, sung by Elling in six different languages. The music includes songs written or made famous by Björk, U2, Edith Piaf, Dori Caymmi and Pat Metheny, and there are several pieces with new lyrics by Elling. In addition to recordings featuring Elling and his touring quartet of Gary Versace (piano), John McLean (guitar), Clark Sommers (bass) and Kendrick Scott (drums), there are tracks with trumpeters Arturo Sandoval and Till Brönner, vocalist Sara Gazarek, accordionist Richard Galliano, the WDR Funkhausorchester and Big Band and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra with tenor saxophonist Tommy Smith.
And as the music stems from recordings spanning just over two years, Elling was obviously planning and forming this album for several months. From the first track, "The Verse" (co-written with John Clayton) the album's central concept is spelled out: So I guess it's the road for me and my dream. The search for a new loving home will be my only theme. Elling and the band then segue into Metheny's "Another Life" (here retitled "After the Door") which continues the juxtaposition of the road and home (Elling was not the first to set lyrics to this piece, and one of the album's two iTunes bonus tracks finds Elling singing the song with Polish lyrics by Anna Maria Jopek).
I've never heard a lovelier versions of the Scottish "Loch Tay Boat Song" or of Brahms' "Nicht Wandle, Mein Licht" (from the "Liebeslieder Waltzes") and the collaboration with Sandoval, "Bonita Cuba" is simply heartbreaking. There's plenty of contrast between the heart-on-sleeve delivery of "Si Te Contara" and the sophisticated approach to "La Vie en Rose". While there are no Elling scat solos on this album, there is a vocalese on "La Vie" (based on a Wynton Marsalis solo). Another highlight is an inspired pairing of a James Joyce poem to Irish composer Brian Byrne's music on "Where Love Is". Gazarek is heard behind Elling on the U2 and Björk songs, but their charming duet on Caymmi's "Você Já Foi À Bahia?" seems way too short amidst the expansive nature of the other tracks. Still, there's very little to fault and much to enjoy on this remarkable album. As he has many times before, Elling has expanded the parameters of his art without alienating his considerable fan base. Lyrics and translations for most of the songs (including the digital bonus tracks) can be found at kurtelling.com/music/passion_world/.