Kurt Elling in a promotional photo for “Passion World.” Photo by Anna Weber
The flowers I bought and arranged into a bouquet last Thursday for my girlfriend Ann Peterson still haven’t faded. Nor should the spirit of Saint Valentine’s Day, and one of the greatest cultural purveyors of concepts and larger values of love is the great jazz singer Kurt Elling.
His last album Passion World (Concord) has been out for a while, but it seems like it should have been released on Valentine’s Day. So the review of the album I wrote for The Shepherd Express, reposted here, feels as timely as ever. 1 Elling took a cosmopolitan and extremely global view of the concept of romance and love that, with his stylistic range, reaches to the common man and woman as well as the romantic sophisticate. And we sure need a serious concept of love to take hold in all the troubled spots in the world today. One of the first concerts Ann and I ever attended together was Elling performing at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Performing Arts on Valentine’s Day of 2014.
Elling is on the West Coast right now, as part of his Passion World tour, and he’ll perform at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley in Seattle Thursday through Sunday https://www.jazzalley.com/www-home/artist.jsp?shownum=1618
Since we saw him in Milwaukee, he’s been a bellwether for the quality of music events we have strove to attend, which has compelled us to Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado, as well as the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco, among other places, all by hitting the road in my car.
I also drove to the 1997 Chicago Jazz Festival, and l’m posting a few previously unpublished and unposted photos of the unforgettable performance that Elling put on at that festival with his primary inspiration, the fearless and gifted jazz vocal pioneer Mark Murphy. If ever I have experienced love on a stage — profoundly leavened by mutual respect — it was between these two performers. Elling is straight and Murphy had been openly gay since early in his career. That fact had made Murphy’s whole professional life an uphill climb, as I detail in the blog post I wrote in commemoration of his death:http://kevernacular.com/?p=3932.
But that performance’s facts also made their set’s feeling of love trans-gay-straight, if you will. Elling’s regard is palpable in a performance video recorded shortly after Murphy’s passing. 2
Mark Murphy (top, in Miles Davis T-shirt) and Kurt Elling perform together for perhaps the first time together at the Jazz at Jackson stage at the 1997 Chicago Jazz Festival. All photos by Kevin Lynch
Elling, a Rockford native, remains one in the most impressive and ambitious artists in jazz today. He has persistently conceived and realized concepts for both his albums and for special concerts that encompass jazz tradition and innovation, as well as literature, philosophy and the other arts.
Originally a divinity student at The University of Chicago “(who admits he was going to write ‘big thick tomes no one would ever read), he turned that passion, reverence and skill into jazz lyrics,” as Charles W. Johnson reported. 3
And I have no little doubt that Elling has contemplated the legacy of Saint Valentine in his many inquiries into love’s meaning, value, and role in society, and even global affairs. Saint Valentine was “a priest of Rome who was imprisoned for giving succor to persecuted Christians.” The celebration of Saint Valentine did not have any romantic connotations until Chaucer‘s poetry about “Valentines” in the 14th century. 4
So here’s an expanded version of my original review:
Kurt Elling — Passion World (Concord Jazz)
Among the world’s most ambitious and gifted singers, Elling pursues what philosophers call the life examined, evidence of his training as a seminarian. Here, his deft, pliant baritone addresses the concepts of passion and romance, and how their complexity and commonality exist among various cultures. Songs in English, Spanish, Portuguese, French and German include folk to art song and tunes adapted with Elling’s own lyrics. Accompaniment ranges from trios to orchestras from Germany and Scotland. For all his global reach, the results consistently convey the truth and illusions of personal experience.
Among Elling’s ports of song is “La Rose en La Vie,” popularized by Edith Piaf. Sumptuously orchestrated with brilliant orchestra-ensemble passages, the magnificently genial melody reaches globally in Elling’s eight-minute-plus version. Carolina Strassmeyer unfurls a lovely, ardent alto sax solo reminiscent of Stan Getz in his bossa-nova phase.
U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name,” echoes U2’s spare yet expansive instrumentation, and lyric: High on a desert plain/ where the streets have no name… We’re always building and burning down love/ But when I go there/ I go there with you/ It’s all I can do…”
The song reflects both Elling’s ambition and his serious-minded humility, in the lyric’s near-helplessness, and in the sense that he’s forever pursuing great material, past and present, by other great artists, to honor and revitalize. By contrast, “Voce Ja Foi a Bahia?” by Brazilian Bossa-nova singer-songwriter Dori Caymmi, is an effervescent duet with Sara Gazarek that conveys the joy of dance in the way the singers twirl, embrace, and artfully circle each other, in perfect rhythm and harmony.
Almost improbable as a follow-up to such Latin joy is Elling’s reading of Johannes Brahms’ exquisitely abject ballad “Nicht Wandle, Mein Licht,” His strong supple baritone holds the lieder up to the light to examine and honor with love’s tenderness. The light is the song’s metaphor for the singer’s lover, for whom his tears may or may not have prompted a flood of tears. A sultry piano by Frank Chastenier brings the ballad fully to the present.
Elling’s ports lie far afield from jazz again on Bjork’s “Who Is It?” But it works as a heart-swelling affirmation of amour — the lover’s trust is a fortress for the lover. It’s an example of Elling’s mission, to pursue the life examined, here by patiently asking the questions that give the real or potential love in one’s life due scrutiny and honor in one’s view.
Elling’s vision expands outward and inward; following along is an armchair adventure.
Passion World CD cover courtesy udiscovermusic.com