On the most romantic night of the year, Grammy Award- winning jazz vocalist, Kurt Elling’s Passion World concert at The Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater was a warm toddy to take the chill off the howling winds and snowy dusting over DC on Valentine’s Day. The soon-to-be released Passion World album is a panorama of love songs from around the world told in multicultural yet universal themes that celebrate the grandeur of romantic love. Leading off with the Sinatra classic, “Come Fly with Me,” Elling took us on a magical ride that was a smooth lift-off, cool gliding and elegant touch-down of dreamy love songs that hit the spot.
Kurt Elling has been on the international jazz scene for a long time. His superb talents as a four-octave baritone, lyricist, composer and technical master in improvisational scatting, spoken word and poetry have won him the Downbeat Critics Poll for the past 14 years. The Jazz Journalist Association also named him “Male Singer of the Year” eight times during this period.
Backed up by a top-flight ensemble of musicians with Gary Versace on piano and organ; Clark Sommers on bass; Kendrick Scott on drums; and John McLean on guitar, Elling had a dream team of accomplished musicians to accompany him. Each musician showcased his phenomenal talent in solos and spotlights throughout the evening. They made pure magic together. This concert was smooth as honey yet full-bodied as a perfect glass of fine wine.
Soft, fluid edges and a slower tempo was the mood of the moment and the muted tones enhanced the emotional depth of songs such as “Three Views of a Secret” and “I Only Have Eyes for You,” an old school doo-wop made famous by the Flamingos. Kurt Elling uses creative arrangements to enhance the classics and transforms them into new poetry using syncopated rhythms and different keys. “Nature Boy,” literally breathed with new life as Elling and ensemble performed this Nat King Cole masterpiece with varied harmonies but the same gossamer quality that makes it an enduring favorite.
Being onstage and singing for a crowd is obviously Kurt Elling’s first home and he is an engaging, charming conversationalist as he draws an audience close through song and spoken word. A great storyteller as well as composer, Elling told about his time performing in Ireland when the Irish concert organizer wanted Kurt to “set some poetry to music to make the people cry”. Elling’s challenge, however, was to set music to the words of James Joyce! “Where Love Is,” was one of the most beautiful songs of the evening that would have made James Joyce proud.
Passion World was not as international as I would have expected as all nine songs were sung in English except for the lovely French encore, “La Vie en Rose”. The concert had an American feel to it, though Valentine’s Day is a distinctly American kind of celebration.
Kurt Elling is uniquely in a class of his own as jazz singers go. I loved this man’s voice. He’s tonally R&B at times, and even gospel. He has a way of extending the edges of a song that vibrate well after the words have been sung. Valentine’s Day was perfect timing to debut Passion World, Kurt Elling’s latest project, in serenade to lovers young and old.
Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.