Kurt Elling: Passion World

“I always knew, I'd fall for the girl next door/To stay at home with love would be my great reward.” Kurt Elling's Passion World begins on a note of raw and wistful melancholy that runs — sometimes breathlessly, sometimes haltingly — through most of the songs on the jazz singer's fifth release on Concord. “Would” is the operative word here. Like the title of its fourth track, “Si Te Contara,” whose opening lines — “If you knew my suffering/You would have to care” — spell out the album's longing as clearly as any, much of the album seems to be written in the conditional or subjunctive tense.
But the “simple life of love” was not to be, so “in search for a new loving home” the speaker in “The Verse” goes, and we along for the ride. The songs span seven countries (Brazil, France, Germany, Scotland, Ireland, Iceland, and Cuba) and four languages. 
Nearly all critics have noted the album's eclecticism, but as one delves deeper into the songs, it becomes clear that Elling's musical and personal wanderings are an inevitable consequence of the first track's “sorrow[ful]” recognition that dreams must be pursued “on the road.”

The album's title prepares us for the expansiveness of its paradoxical search for home — or stasis — in movement. We are surprised only by how successfully that “theme” announced in the opening bars of “The Verse” proceeds through material so stylistically and geographically diverse. As Andrew Gilbert notes in his review on Elling's website, this has much to do with the “enviable cohesion and versatility of his collaborators,” including guitarist John McLean, pianist Gary Versace, bassist Clark Sommers, and drummer Kendrick Scott.

The desperately sad “Bonita Cuba,” a collaboration with Arturo Sandoval, voices, perhaps improbably, much the same desire as “Where the Streets Have No Name” (The Edge/Bono), which McLean transforms from rock mega-hit to lilting folk-jazz ballad. In another astonishing arrangement, McLean creates a haunting, elegant version of Bjork's “Who Is It” (“Carry My Joy on the Left, Carry My Pain on the Right)” that is all but unrecognizable from the original.

Both the U2 and Bjork renditions reinforce that the search for place is ultimately an attempt to name, or to personalize, place. And the Brahms “Nicht Wandle, Mein Licht” (Liebeslieder Walzer Op. 52, No. 17), whose inclusion in the collection is nothing short of inspired, functions almost as a spiritual voice from the past, reminding us that the search for home — and a home in others — is as timeless as it is universal. Passion World may not come to rest, or complete its search, but the beauty and energy of its attempt makes us feel at home.