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Kurt Elling: Live in Chicago

Kurt Elling is over-blessed with talent-strong chops, great ears, solid time. He honors the past by resurrecting vintage ballads and bebop classics, embraces contemporary pop and jazz material, and explores new directions in his own compositions. There’s no debating Elling’s gifts but the jury is still out on his performance persona and some of his artistic choices.

Live in Chicago, recorded last July at the Windy City’s Green Mill, is Elling’s finest work so far. He’s relying less on aping his inspiration, Mark Murphy, and is evolving his own sound and style. His accompanists-Bill Evans-ish pianist Laurence Hobgood, bassist Rob Amster and percussionist Michael Raynor-make distinctive solo statements and are attentive to Elling’s every vocal nuance. Two ballads are particularly impressive: a 12-minute “My Foolish Heart” incorporating a poem by the mystic/monk St. John of the Cross and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” with a prelude and coda adapted from Keith Jarrett’s recording of that song. (Too bad Elling thoughtlessly sabotages lyricist Otto Harbach’s rhyme scheme by singing “chaffed” as “chafed.”) Jon Hendricks makes two guest appearances, muddling through the bop duet “Don’t Get Scared” before hitting his stride backing Elling in a revival of the Lambert, Hendricks & Ross vocalese “Goin’ to Chicago.” The Yellowjackets’ “Downtown” and Sting’s “Oh My God” receive uptempo jazz renovations.

As in previous efforts, however, the CD tanks when Elling tries his hand at poetry, outfitting Wayne Shorter’s “Night Dream” and Vince Mendoza’s “Esperanto” with lyrics that sound like the collision of a hyper-sensitive middle-school student and a rhyming dictionary. “The Rent Party”, a pseudo Kerouac rap framing cameo appearances by saxophonists Von Freeman, Eddie Johnson and Ed Petersen, is even worse, reflecting the hipster wannabe sensibility that Lenny Bruce used to ridicule in his “hep smoke a reefer” routine. With Elling, one can never quite be sure whether the next spine-tingle will be caused by pleasure or cringing.

Originally Published