Kurt Elling | Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Kurt Elling 

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KURT ELLING

On his first album Chicago-based vocalist Kurt Elling intrigued audiences, and on his second he challenged them. On his newly released This Time It's Love (Blue Note), he tries to massage them--and woo a few new listeners as well--with an album of love songs. But Elling's artistic restlessness and natural iconoclasm wouldn't let this be a typical "ballads" album. For starters, you can't apply that term to either McCoy Tyner's driving, Coptic "Effendi" or Freddie Hubbard's "Delphia," a 1970 tune that weaves and feints like a balletic boxer (and with Elling's lyrics becomes a steamy evocation of sexual attraction). And two other tunes that qualify as ballads--"The Very Thought of You" and "She's Funny That Way"--are relieved of any excess sap by Elling's smart vocalese (the technique by which a jazz lyricist fits words to a previously improvised instrumental solo, preserving all the meanderings of the melody). "My Foolish Heart" has a tough, street-smart beat that lifts it out of its gauzy origins; one more standard, "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing," gets a delightful and only partly tongue-in-cheek treatment in which a chorus of overdubbed Ellings recalls the swing era's Modernaires. And because the few tunes that do follow the rules--unabashed romantic fodder such as "Too Young to Go Steady" and "Every Time We Say Goodbye"--contrast so starkly with these unexpected twists, their purity and their impact are heightened. Elling's refusal to play it straight may put a kink in his plan to expand his following, but it has let him succeed in thoroughly rethinking the whole ballads concept. At this outdoor CD-release party Elling will perform tunes from This Time It's Love with his regular trio, led by powerhouse pianist Laurence Hobgood; violinist Johnny Frigo and tenor saxist Eddie Johnson will reprise their album guest spots and vocal quartet the Arbors will stand in for the above-mentioned legion of Ellings. Johnson will also play in a combo led by trumpeter Orbert Davis to open the concert. Friday, 7 PM, Columbian Basin, Museum of Science and Industry, 57th and Lake Shore Dr.; 773-684-1414. Elling also performs next Saturday, August 29, at 4:30 PM at the Goose Island Festival, Clybourn and Sheffield; 773-472-9046. NEIL TESSER

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by William Claxton.

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