New Kurt Elling bursts through new ‘Passion World’

Passion World is more than the famous guest musicians on the same page, the expansive, diverse track list, and the Grammy-winning caliber of the featured jazz vocalist. Kurt Elling's fifth Concord album (11th in his discography) is the artist's essential make-up in 14 deeply felt, well thought out songs.
An audience favorite despite the limits of the jazz genre, Elling is known worldwide for personalizing his shows with an acute awareness and appreciation for origin of place. He's not one of those artists (polished within an inch of their lives) who come and go, and perform the same set the same way whether in New York City's Blue Note or a small village hundreds of miles from civilization in the boondocks of Russia.

The worst thing you could do to the average jazz artist is throw them a curveball. Force him out of his comfort zone, his planned set list, his overly rehearsed performance. Elling is different. He goes after such challenges as a sign of respect to the people of a place of origin who wait in long lines and are dying to see him live. This album is a result of Elling's tendency to incorporate those people's cultures into his shows, whether he's fully prepared to perform them or not.

The songs in Passion World “are all pieces that I gathered to perform as either encores or as what I think of as 'charmers' — songs from each local situation that would allow me to extend a hand,” Elling explained in a press release for the upcoming, June 9th release. “Part of my joy as a singer is to give gifts to people, and one way I try to connect to them is to add something in French, or German, or whatever. It's the one time during a performance where people see me being very vulnerable in their context, instead of them feeling vulnerable in ours. And if I mess it up, they seem to appreciate that I tried.”

On Passion World, Elling doesn't mess up. The gathering of cultures and guest stars — his biggest collection yet — naturally, beautifully come together to present a most personalized concert of songs from Brazil, Germany, France, Cuba, Ireland, Scotland, and many, many other places abroad.

Elling and his core recording band are comprised of bassist Clark Sommers, drummer Kendrick Scott, guitarist John McLean and keyboardist Gary Versace. Elling's guest stars include vocalist Sara Gazarek, her accompanist Josh Nelson, who collaborated on songs as a background vocal arranger, German pianist Florian Ross, who also put in some great arrangements, trumpeter/pianist Arturo Sandoval, trumpeter Till Brönner, French accordionist Richard Galliano, and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra with leader, saxophone savant Tommy Smith.

Besides wonderfully supportive colleagues, these people also provided Elling with enormous vaults of inspiration, so that the songs breathe with a pulse and a character, rather than just sound nice.

Elling himself also put a lot of thought into the concepts of passion and romance in the shaping of the songs. During his tours, he noticed that different cultures viewed love differently.

“Romance is one of the things that most countries share, and I've noticed how different communities have their own ways of singing about love and heartbreak,” he explained, also from the press relese. “So the nature of songs I have performed in France, for instance, reflects being cool when romance is done. In chanson, the French teach us the value of nonchalance. In lyrics from Cuba or Latin America there is an overwrought, almost threatening response to a broken heart, while in Brazil they sing of the love that remains after the object of love has gone. They mix happiness and sadness together and call it saudade. In Italy or Germany, the lyrics reveal the kind of statuesque and heroic, almost operatic, nature of the broken heart.”

Elling shows he listens better than anyone else in the business with “Bonita Cuba's” birth. One evening on a jazz cruise, he enjoyed a lovely melody floating in from the cabin next door. Arturo Sandoval was in that cabin, remembering his time back home in Cuba, before he and his parents got out. Sandoval put all of his hopes, dreams, and homesickness into that melody, which Elling requested to lyricize appropriately.

“It's a beautiful thing to have time in the world, as a singer and as a musician, to make friends with people of the musical caliber of a Tommy Smith, an Arturo Sandoval, a Richard Galliano, a Till Brönner. These guys are fully jazz musicians, and they are pulling themselves closer to jazz from various regional contexts – and pulling jazz into those contexts, because jazz has the flexibility to move across borders,” Elling continued.

Kurt Elling entrusted an advance review to JazzTimes writer Andrew Gilbert who did not let the multiple-Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist down. Gilbert noticed a lot of evocative, luxurious tears in a great deal of the songs, with one or two bright spots. He singled out L.A.-based, Seattle jazz vocalist Gazarek, for one.

An excerpt: “Just when Passion World seems to brim with tears, Elling brings the effervescent Los Angeles jazz vocalist Sara Gazarek to the fore for a duet on Dorival Caymmi's ode to the beauties of his homeland, 'Você Já Foi à Bahia?,' a brief blast of pure sensuous joy. (After all, if you really want to samba, you should go to Bahia!) And then it's back to luxurious tears, with Michael Abene's ravishing arrangement of Brahms’ 'Nicht Wandle, Mein Licht' for the WDR Funkhausorchester and WDR Big Band. There aren't many artists who can pull off this kind of tonal and cultural juxtaposition, but Elling does so with sincerity and grace….

“Kurt Elling isn't making any naive panglossian claims with Passion World. Rather, he approaches the material with wide-eyed marvel at the multiplicity of the human experience.”