Kurt Elling delivers passion-filled performance
Kurt Elling, returning to the stage for his encore, drolly acknowledged that he was pushing pre-sales of his forthcoming album pretty hard when the Celebrity Series of Boston brought him to Sanders Theatre Friday night. “It's crass, I know,” the singer said, “but jazz is in a jam.”
“Passion World” is due out June 9, and judging by that night's show, Elling owes no apologies. Joined for four tunes by special guest Anat Cohen on clarinet, Elling and his working band — John McLean, guitar; Gary Versace, jugging piano, organ, and accordion; Clark Sommers, bass; Bryan Carter, subbing for Kendrick Scott on drums — played a crowd-pleasing set that mixed seven songs from the new disc with five from Elling's repertoire.
The core group started by bookending seven pieces with two associated with Frank Sinatra to honor his birth centennial: “Come Fly With Me,” which Elling covered on his 2012 album, “1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project,” and “I Have Dreamed,” better known from the musical “The King and I.” Perhaps inspired by his Brill Building exploration, Elling wrote the lyrics for four tunes on “Passion World,” two of which — “The Verse” and “After the Door” (the latter for music by Pat Metheny) — came here, along with the doleful Scottish traditional “Loch Tay Boat Song” and Elling's earlier “Samurai Cowboy” and “The Waking” (from the Theodore Roethke poem). Each instrumentalist got some well-used solo time, with Elling himself scatting a drumlike exchange with Carter that climaxed amusingly with the singer rhythmically rubbing his microphone on his double-breasted gray suit jacket.
But the performance climaxed with Cohen onstage. She eased her way in slowly on another tune with Elling lyrics, “The Tangled Road,” taking a relatively modest solo and then looking on approvingly during Versace's piano turn. Elling sang the next tune, “Si Te Contara,” in Spanish while beating a steady rhythm on a cowbell, and Cohen's resplendent solo here earned a huge burst of applause.
Elling introduced “Bonita Cuba” with a charmingly detailed story of overhearing Arturo Sandoval playing a mournful melody in the next cabin while on a cruise ship and offering to put words to Sandoval's impromptu lament for his native island, and this tune, too, proved a highlight. Elling scatted a vigorous intro to “Nature Boy” to wrap up the set, and sent people home with the calming “Where Love Is,” a James Joyce poem put to music.