Kurt Elling: Passion World on WBGO’s The Checkout Radar

Kurt Elling is always inspiring. Gig to gig. Album to album. He's always expanding and extending his musical horizon.
Passion World is certainly his most ambitious album yet. Some of the inspiration comes from his singing for many years around this passionate world.

Encountering other cultures, other musicians. Wherever you listen to the music, you hear everywhere unique and compelling melodies and harmonies.

Especially you feel all the differently lively rhythms of the world. And, like jazz, Kurt embraces the world and all the folks he sings to when he travels.

“It's remarkable how people respond,” says Kurt in the album notes, “when you make an obvious effort to learn and honor a precious part of their culture.”

One common denominator is love. When you hear someone sing a traditional love song, maybe in Polish, or in any language you don't speak yourself, what enraptures you is the heart in all of the songs. That's what you hear on Passion World as Kurt sings in Spanish, French, German, and Portuguese, also sings songs from Scotland and Ireland and Iceland.

Kurt opens the new album with a prelude, inspired by the Polish singer Anna Maria Jopek, singing his own lyrics in English. “The Verse” composed by John Clayton. “After The Door” composed by Pat Metheny.

Kurt recorded the traditional “Loch Tay Song” in Glasgow, with Scottish tenor saxist Tommy Smith conducting the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra.

His current keyboardist, Gary Versace, plays accordion on a Spanish song, “Si Te Contara.”

“La Vie En Rose” is one of the most often recorded chansons in French, immortalized in jazz by Louis Armstrong. Michael Abene arranged the song for the WDR Big Band, an orchestra that swings anything and everything. Karolina Strassmayer plays an alto sax solo, and Kurt sings some of his own lyrics.

“Bonita Cuba” was composed by and features long-time expatriate Arturo Sandoval on the trumpet. “I was thinking about Cuba and about friends back home I haven't seen for decades,” says Arturo in the album notes. His mournful melody echoes “thinking about my mother, who always thought she'd go home. Instead, she died in America.”

Elling thereafter jumps back to Ireland with U2's “Where The Streets Have No Name,” arranged by guitarist John McLean.

Some of the impetus for Passion World came from a concert of romantic songs that Kurt performed in the Appel Room of JALC with the accordion master Richard Galliano. Elling's words and Galliano's music came together with the song “The Tangled Road,” arranged by Elling's Chicago compatriot Laurence Hobgood and featuring German trumpeter Till Brönner.

So much of the album is haunting and heartfelt, but songs from Bahia enliven other corners of one's body and soul like from nowhere else. Sara Gazarek joins Kurt for a song of the Brazilian fisherman/songwriter Dorival Caymmi, “Você Já Foi à Bahia?”.

What follows is a heartbreaking classical liebeslieder (love song) of Brahms, reharmonized by Laurence Hobgood, orchestrated by Michael Abene, and featuring pianist Frank Chastenier with the WDR big band.

Passion World concludes with songs from Iceland and from Ireland. “Who Is It (Carry My Joy on the Left, Carry My Pain on the Right)” by Björk and “Where Is Love” with lyrics of James Joyce.

That he's created an album like an almanac is unusual but, again, not surprising for Kurt Elling. Not from a cat who quieted the drunken revelers of a New Year's Eve WBGO broadcast from Chicago with a poem of Rilke. And he looks to expand and extend his worldly horizon even farther.

“My ears,” says Kurt Elling, “are open for more.”