‘Passion World’ Review: Kurt Elling takes a trip around the world on his latest album

For too long, those who think seriously about jazz have tended to organize the music in terms of a historical sequence of stylistic “begats”: New Orleans begat Hot Jazz, which begat swing, which begat bebop, which in turn begat the postmodern era. In his latest album, “Passion World,” singer Kurt Elling shows that the most important journey that jazz has made isn't from era to era or style to style, but from nation to nation and continent to continent.
Mr. Elling has long been one of jazz's great eclectics. Even on his first album, “Close Your Eyes” (1995), it was abundantly clear that he wasn't afraid to mix together songs from a wide range of sources. From the beginning, he was on a perpetual quest to introduce new weapons into the jazz singer's arsenal. That first album contained a share of traditional songbook standards. But what seemed radical at the time were Mr. Elling's highly original “vocalese” works, in which he set original lyrics to tunes and improvisations by such jazz giants as Wayne Shorter, Dave Brubeck and Herbie Hancock.

From very early on, Mr. Elling incorporated spoken-word passages, some improvised. And although his most successful album, 2009's Grammy-winning “Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman,” is entirely taken from the Great American Songbook, he has consistently expanded the canon—from Keith Jarrett and Pat Metheny melodies that never had words to Stephen Sondheim show tunes that had never been swung to a jazz beat. While most jazz singers do “Pennies From Heaven,” Mr. Elling recites spiritual affirmations from Rumi and St. John the Divine. He is willing to push the envelope—any envelope—as far as it will go.

As a brief look at YouTube confirms, Mr. Elling is one of the more traveled musicians on the contemporary scene. “Passion World,” his 11th album, is the result of those voyages, a collection of songs gathered from Europe and Latin America. Back in the day, headliners like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra released so-called travel albums, but such collections as Sinatra's “Come Fly With Me” were largely filled with American songs that tried to evoke faraway places with strange-sounding names. Mr. Elling has made it a point to perform songs that actually originate from a wide range of nations, including Cuba (“Si Te Contara,” “Bonita Cuba”), Scotland (“Loch Tay Boat Song”), Brazil (“Você Já Foi à Bahia?,” a stunning duet with the West Coast singer Sara Gazarek) and Germany (“Nicht Wandle, Mein Licht,” based on a Brahms lieder).

Mr. Elling combines authenticity with stunning originality. The album's two French songs, in particular, are true hybrids. Edith Piaf's “La Vie En Rose” is sung in French, but with a lovely solo by the Viennese saxophonist Karolina Strassmayer and an original vocalese section based on a Wynton Marsalis trumpet solo that Mr. Elling sings in English, employing his profoundly rich and resonant baritone. “The Tangled Road” is a rather intricate Franco-American web; it was composed by the brilliant Gallic accordionist Richard Galliano, who originally titled it “Billie” as a dedication to the American jazz icon Billie Holiday, but Mr. Elling came up with a narrative and title that were all his own.

Two songs—U2's “Where the Streets Have No Name” and Björk's “Who Is It (Carry My Joy on the Left, Carry My Pain on the Right),” representing Ireland and Iceland, respectively—amount to transcendent slices of contemporary international pop. In each case, Mr. Elling has started with a rather brooding, heavily layered and extremely dire studio production, but then stripped away many levels of dross to unveil a surprisingly tuneful song. “Streets,” for instance, has gone from thumping rocker to highly melodic ballad.

His take on “Who Is It” is a radical rethinking—the original begins with an oddly mechanical cry of anguish, then turns into what sounds like a love duet between two drum machines. It seems like Mr. Elling could have easily composed an entirely new song in the same amount of time he and arranger John McLean devoted to reimagining this Björk work. Still, the finished product is worth the effort: Mr. Elling's interpretation allows us, for the first time, to hear the poetic rhapsody of the composer's lyrics and the melodic beauty of her music. “Who Is It” also benefits from a particularly effective video, filmed at Birdland (where Mr. Elling launched the new album earlier this month), that further reveals that Björk is capable of writing something warmer and more intimate than any of us—excepting Mr. Elling—had ever realized. For the first time, the Björk song sounds like it really is about joy and pain.