Sense and Sensitivity: Kurt Elling Serves Up Both on Passion World

There are few singers in the world today who work as hard as Kurt Elling to build strong bridges across musical boundaries. His latest album is called Passion World, and it lives up to its name as a global span of ardent emotions expressed in very diverse songs.
Elling is, for my money, the finest singer of his generation and there seems to be no zone in which he cannot comfortably operate. He is, of course, a jazz singer to the very core of his being, but the performances on this album are also testimony to his versatility and sensitivity.

The songs on Passion World have been collected over a number of years and Elling is typically candid about his initial motivations. “I started gathering pieces from different countries in different languages strictly to perform as 'charmers', or encores”, says the singer in his personal liner notes. But these tunes are not bagatelles, and Elling never treats a song as a trifling thing.

The world “eclectic” may spring to mind when we detect song-writing credits as diverse as Björk, Brahms and Bono, but that is reading too much into the singer's intentions. The opening track is a short, very bittersweet ballad entitled The Verse, and it catalogues the record clearly as jazz. The elliptical melody is by John Clayton with a tender lyric by Elling and it neatly stamps the album's credentials as the work of an interpreter, rather than a tourist.

The seamless segue into Pat Metheny's After the Door, again with a lyric from Elling, reinforces the point that his travel diary has context and perspective. In his world of “love and music” jazz is the music, music is love, and love is unconditional empathy. I believe that this where Elling's strength comes from, and it's the reason why he continues to grow as an artist and constantly reach new listeners.

A singer like Sinatra had the ability to put himself in someone else's shoes, but Elling can place himself inside a character's soul, often with very moving results. I first heard him perform Loch Tay Boat Song with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra in Perth, and he fashioned a swell of emotion out of lovelorn sentimentality. As a well-known folk song, it has always been a touching wee tune, but that night it became deep well of sadness. It's also evidence that the soulful connections Elling makes with collaborators like Tommy Smith can be captured on record to lasting effect.

A similar bond is struck up between Elling and Arturo Sandoval on Bonita Cuba, a homesick blues composed by the trumpeter that gently cradles a heartfelt lyric by Elling. It contains so many different kinds of poetry that to list them all would simply be an act of deconstruction. Just think of everything that a jazz song can say, simply and directly in any language, and you'll get some idea of the layers in this song. It's also an object lesson in capturing a listener's attention and keeping them involved for the duration. Ear-catching couplets like “If I could I'd build a boat out of my heart, and sail to my home, Bonita Cuba in the dark” weave in and out of Sandoval's compelling Latin lament; a song that is imbued with the shadows of fatalism, resignation and grief that so often gather around us in our loneliest moments.

Nevertheless, where there are shadows there is light, and Passion World is the story of love and music in all its life-affirming ebullience and intensity. La Vie En Rose is as sumptuous as a long weekend for two in a posh Paris hotel, with extra-cosy central heating courtesy of the WDR Big Band, and elegant strings from the WDR Funkhausorchester. Better still it comes in an extended arrangement by Michael Abene that feels like you've been treated to three nights for the price of two.

Si Te Contara dresses the looseness of the Buena Vista crowd in more formal Cuban dance class attire and recaptures some of that pent-up 1950's ardour. There are actually a lot of Latin steps to learn on this album as evidenced by the eminently danceable Você Já Foi à Bahia. It's delightfully reminiscent of Sergio Mendes in 1966 with the female vocal by Lani Hall and Bibi Vogel, or even Antonio with Astrid. The song itself predates that era by a good twenty years and Elling, singing here with the charming Sara Gazarek, add a bit of 21st Century glam to a very bright arrangement.

Aside from revealing the innate musicality of the Ice Queen from Reykjavík on Who Is It, Elling also demonstrates that Björk Guðmundsdóttir has been subscribing to convention all along. It's a tune that could just as easily have leaked from the pen of Bill Withers or Ralph McDonald, and Elling tempers Björkian hyperactivity with wise counsel. The happy outcome is a good song well sung, with the joy of connubial attachment preserved in its soft-centre.

There is however no need to look for jazz (even where The Streets Have No Name) for Elling always knows the way. He dashes through Bono's yell-fest with just as much energy and considerably more élan. His destination is The Tangled Road, a Richard Galliano composition in an intense arrangement by Laurence Hobgood. It kind of sneaks up on you as a surreptitious centerpiece, and it brings us that rare thing – an original jazz ballad that is true to the form without bowing to the formulaic. The piano-led point of departure is the uncertainty of lasting love, and it travels towards deeper tonalities of disaffection and percussive outbursts of frustration. It also places the singer and his ensemble at the heart of the journey into expression, fearlessly seeking out the more belligerent jazz motifs of doubt, fear, rejection and anger.

His setting of James Joyce's Where Love Is gently closes out the set and is a reflective coda to an album that reports on the things we have in common, and not the things that differentiate us. The song also bookends the album by exploring similar sentiments to those expressed in The Verse. These observations of the fleeting nature of love from one of our most thoughtful singers are perhaps there to remind us to place more value upon it.