Gustavus Adolphus grad and Grammy-winning vocalist Kurt Elling released his 11th album last week, "Passion World." It's his broadest, most diverse recording yet, and it offers ways in for all kinds of listeners, jazz fans or not.
Elling won his Grammy for "Dedicated to You," which came out in 2009. That was his 10th Grammy nod, and he has since received two more. The best male jazz vocalist of our time, he regularly tops "Male Vocalist of the Year" critics' and readers' polls. He has an insane touring schedule and performs all over the world – in clubs, concert halls and festivals, with his own quintet, symphony orchestras and big bands.
If there is such a thing these days as a jazz superstar, Elling is it. Not catching him at the Dakota on Monday, when he brings his "Passion World" tour here for one night, would be a lost opportunity.
Elling is a complete musician, an artist at the top of his game who continues to push himself. He commands the stage, and he looks the part, from well-coiffed head to polished toe. He would probably sooner die than perform in a T-shirt. He has a magnificent voice – a rich, resonant baritone with a four-octave range – and a sure command of technique, phrasing, rhythm and dynamics.
Elling is a great scat singer (using his voice to imitate an instrument; think Louis Armstrong), though he probably won't scat at the Dakota this time, since "Passion World" isn't that kind of project. He's a master of vocalese, the art of writing and performing his own words over jazz melodies or recorded improvised jazz solos (think Manhattan Transfer). He communicates story and pure emotion, drawing you in, making you feel what he's singing.
On "Passion World," Elling sings in five languages: English, Spanish, French, Portuguese and German. It's a reflection of his life on the road. The album features two orchestras, Scottish and German, and international guest stars including Cuban-born trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, French-Italian accordionist Richard Galliano, German trumpeter Till Brönner and American vocalist Sara Gazarek. There are songs by Pat Metheny, U2, Björk and Brahms, songs from Ireland, Cuba, France and Brazil. Sentiments range from love to loss, deep sorrow to giddy joy.
His voice rises and falls, softens and toughens, shifts and changes from song to song, and from phrase to phrase. If you go, listen for the many ways in which he uses his voice. He plays it like a fine instrument that can do anything, a Stradivarius of baritones.
At the Dakota, Elling will perform with a version of his current quintet: Gary Versace on piano, John McLean on guitar, Clark Sommers on bass, Christian Euman on drums.