Passion World, the fifth Concord album (and eleventh overall) from vocalist Kurt Elling, lives up to its title on both counts. It is indeed his most “worldly” album to date, as Elling casts his net far and wide, from Brazil to Ireland, Germany to France, Scotland to Cuba to Iceland. And it is indeed all about “passions” – the forces that shake our souls. As one of the busiest touring jazz artists, Elling has encountered these passions around the world; he has observed how the same depth of feeling is shaped in different ways by each unique culture through which it is filtered. The result is an album vibrant with diversity and variety, and at the same time a singular celebration of what makes us all human. In terms of its conceptual scope and its breadth of influences, Passion World is the most ambitious project yet from the preeminent male vocalist in jazz.
It is also Elling’s most star-studded album, featuring a small battalion of guest collaborators working in tandem with the singer’s much-traveled quintet (keyboardist Gary Versace, guitarist John McLean, bassist Clark Sommers, drummer Kendrick Scott). The guests include the brilliant veteran trumpeter Cuban émigré Arturo Sandoval; the widely lauded young vocalist Sara Gazarek; German trumpet star Till Brönner; French accordion virtuoso Richard Galliano; the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and its founder-leader, saxophone savant Tommy Smith; and the world-renowned WDR Big Band and Orchestra from Germany, featuring pianist Frank Chastenier.
For most of us, “passion” conjures up love, at its most dramatic and exotic. “These are by and large compositions about romance,” says Elling, a GRAMMY winner in 2009 (and ten-time GRAMMY nominee during his career). “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. 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.”
But sometimes the heartbreak stems from circumstances beyond the bubble that surrounds two lovers, and Elling nods to that as well: witness the poignant “Where The Streets Have No Name,” U2’s ode to lives lost in war and politics, newly arranged by guitarist John McLean. Witness also “Bonita Cuba,” born of a fortuitous ocean-liner booking. On the last evening of a recent Caribbean jazz cruise, Elling heard Arturo Sandoval playing this melody from his adjacent cabin. “I said, ‘Arturo, that’s so sad. Is that a tradition of yours, to play down the sun?’ But he said, ‘No, I was thinking about Cuba, and about friends back home I haven’t seen in decades. I was thinking about my mother and father. I got them out, and they always thought they were going to go home – but they’re buried in America.’” Elling asked if he might put lyrics to this melody, and “Bonita Cuba” took shape. Recorded at Sandoval’s house, with the trumpeter’s rhythm section, “the song redeems some small portion of the vast, lost expanse of 90 miles that continue to separate Sandoval from his homeland, and gives the sadness room to sing,” in the words of liner-notes writer Andrew Gilbert.
Many of the other songs on Passion World also have noteworthy origins. Elling learned “Loch Tay Boat Song” back in college when he spent a year abroad studying at Edinburgh University, and it has percolated in his mind ever since. On perhaps the loveliest track on the album, the devastating “Where Love Is,” he sings a James Joyce poem that blends abject misery and pure joy, set to music by Irish composer Brian Byrne. Elling discovered “After The Door,” a Pat Metheny song originally titled “Another Life,” when he heard it as “Me jedyne niebo,” sung by Polish vocalist Anna Marie Jopek (whose husband wrote the Polish lyrics). As a prelude, Elling worked with the noted bassist and arranger John Clayton to craft “Verse,” the brief plaint that also serves to introduce the entire album. The durable “La Vie En Rose” features an Elling vocalese lyric written over a Wynton Marsalis solo on that tune, from a recording that featured Marsalis in concert with Richard Galliano. And Galliano’s own composition “Billie,” dedicated to Billie Holiday, inspired the vocalist to write lyrics as well, for the tune now titled “The Tangled Road.”
It was in fact Elling’s desire to work with Galliano that prompted the initial public performance of the “Passion World” concept for a Jazz at Lincoln Center concert in 2010. “I needed a vehicle that suited the two of us,” Elling explains. “I already had a couple things in French, and a couple things in Portuguese, from Brazil. That was the start of it. Then I wanted to learn some of Galliano’s tunes, to potentially write new lyrics for them – to honor his contributions as a composer – and then I realized how many countries I hadn’t reached out to yet. So as we continued to tour, I continued to look for new material.
An iTunes bonus track, “Parisian Heartbreak,” features Elling’s lyric to a composition from Galliano.
“These 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,” says Elling, whose international performances are indeed famous for his inclusion of regional color and the infusion of native languages. “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 stretches further afield than on any of his previous efforts, placing his enormous talent in a context that includes but does not restrict itself to jazz per se. Most of the songs on Passion World do not come from the jazz canon, and because of this, the album may be especially welcoming to new listeners. “I’m just following my curiosity,” he allows. “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 fans will note that on Passion World, the singer abstains from the high-flying scat improvisation that stands among his great contributions to jazz in this century and that remains a vital component of his artistic arsenal. But as he reminds us, “One doesn’t have to scat to be a jazz singer. And in this case, I think the spirit of improvisation is present in what I’m doing. The actual display of virtuosity is for people like Smith and Sandoval to unveil. On this record, I’m just trying to sing real good.”