Kurt Elling | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Kurt Elling 

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A star is born. Vocalist Kurt Elling's first album--Close Your Eyes, due on Blue Note in a week or so--should generate plenty of buzz on the national jazz scene, almost as much as the press hype for him has created in Chicago. Elling just may be the real thing. His commanding, charismatic baritone would easily serve a traditional crooner; little else about him would fit that mold. As much poet as singer, as much 50s hipster as Gen-Xer, Elling has come up with a new take on the lineage of jazz singers like Eddie Jefferson and Mark Murphy. Jefferson invented vocalese, the setting of lyrics to a previously improvised instrumental solo; Murphy began to offer melodic improvisation on those vocalese lyrics. Now comes Elling, who improvises the lyrics themselves, applying the principal of scat singing to words as well as notes. ("Singers need to take a quantum leap forward if they're ever going to catch up with what the instrumentalists have been doing," he says. "If you're not gonna do something new, then please do not bother the eardrums of America.") Even when he sings a carefully honed composed lyric, he gives it the present-tense danger of improvisation. For instance, "Dolores"--a roller-coaster of a tune written by Wayne Shorter in the 60s--now carries an Elling story poem that brims with rich detail a la Tom Waits. But the words themselves--the beat and snap of their sound and meter--swing like Miles. Elling doesn't yet have total control over his exuberant style, and his enthusiasm pours over the top several times per set. But his large and small triumphs, from the overall conception of his best pieces to individual rhymes on every page of lyrics, carry the day. For Friday's CD-release party, the guests are Elling's band Trio New and, in from his new home of New Orleans, saxist Ed Petersen, whose weekly Green Mill gig supplied the setting for Elling's development. Friday, 9 PM, and Saturday, 8 PM, Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway; 878-5552.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Bette Marshall.

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