Kurt Elling takes us inside his “Passion World”

[Our resident music reviewer Donald sacrificed a night with his favorite TV show to see jazz vocalist Kurt Elling, and found it well worth the trade. —the artblog editors]
Typically, Sunday nights for me are known exclusively as The Good Wife night. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. This, however, was not the case on Oct. 5. Grammy Award-winning jazz vocalist Kurt Elling was in town, and to me, that meant a definite must-see. Elling has won every DownBeat Magazine Critics Poll for the last 14 years, and has been named “Male Singer of the Year” by the Jazz Journalists Association eight times in that same span.

Love, loss, and language

This concert was a preview of Elling's forthcoming album, Passion World, to be released in spring 2015. Passion World explores the language of love in a journey throughout the world, through internationally known ballads of love and loss.

The opening tune was the quintessential Sinatra tune, “Come Fly With Me”. I loved the way Elling would sustain a note, pull his microphone down, and bring the microphone back up while still sustaining the note. It showed off his technically profound voice to marvelous effect.

As Elling traveled the world through music, so did the languages. He sings songs in the native tongues of France, Iceland, and Brazil, to name a few. His Spanish diction is much more consistent than his French. You can still detect a little English in his French diction.

Elling is known for his vocalese, and adding new lyrics to already well-known jazz standards by legends such as Wayne Shorter, Keith Jarrett, and Pat Metheny. For this album, Elling wrote lyrics for “Love's Tangled Road,” a song composed by French accordionist extraordinaire Richard Galliano.

“Dear Heart, Why Will You Use Me So?” is an original song written by an Irish orchestra conductor, intended to make people cry over Elling's voice — as Elling wittily described in his intro of the song (putting on an Irish accent as he imitated the conductor). The song includes sweet musical interactions between Elling and guitarist John McLean. Its sincerity reminded me a great deal of “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music.

Elling's quartet, including McLean on guitar, Emmet Cohen on piano, Clark Sommers on bass, and Kendrick Scott on drums, held its own with Elling. The group had a fun chemistry about it, with members joking during the set and evidently loving the music they were performing for an enthusiastic yet sophisticated Philly crowd.

Selling Elling

The material Elling performed from Passion World gave me a strong feeling that this album will easily be one of his strongest to date in his nearly two-decade musical career.

When watching Elling sing, it's easy to get lost in his world of passion. He phrases a lyric like no one else, and makes the most of his four-octave vocal range with wonderful results that are thrilling and even unexpected at times. He's one of those jazz singers who walks the walk as the real deal, not a traditional pop singer (like Tony Bennett or Michael Bublé). It's one thing to sing a standard well, and it's another thing to sing that standard well while performing it in the moment, completely spontaneously. That's what any great improvising artist strives to do, and Elling does it in spades.