Chicago jazz singer Kurt Elling has been nominated for Grammy Awards so frequently that it seems inevitable he'll pick up the prize sooner or later. In truth, he deserved to win years ago, for visionary work such as his brilliant debut CD, "Close Your Eyes" (1995), and its innovative follow-ups, particularly "The Messenger" (1997) and "Man in the Air" (2003).
Yet for all the polish and sincerity of Elling's much-anticipated new release, "Dedicated to You" (Concord Jazz), the recording, alas, does not make his strongest possible case. Warmly recorded and meticulously delivered, it nonetheless shows Elling -- the most ferocious male singer in jazz today -- at his most restrained.
Hard-core Elling fans (and they are numerous) will welcome "Dedicated to You" for the luster of its sound and the ease of its delivery. Others will wish that one of these days Elling would recapture the fire of his youth, or at least try to.
Conceived as an evocation of the classic ballad album "John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman," Elling's CD immediately shows in its high-toned aspirations. A string quartet plays luscious, yearning phrases; pianist Laurence Hobgood lays down a melodramatic vamp; Elling begins crooning the long lines of Frank Sinatra's first great hit, "All or Nothing at All."
Then it's on to the repertoire of the Coltrane-Hartman album, which proves serenely melodic at first but eventually settles into an affable predictability. For Elling's light baritone, unlike Hartman's regal instrument, is not a voice to get lost in. It's what Elling does with what he has that always has made him a fascinating vocalist, and on this CD -- as on his other ballad collections -- he doesn't do quite enough.
Still, the sparks of invention that emerge on his version of Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" (a real achievement) and on the glorious "My One and Only Love" merit serious listening. Both would have been more effective, however, without the applause that repeatedly interrupts the progress of a CD recorded live at Lincoln Center (a studio recording would have been preferable in material as genteel as this).
Will "Dedicated to You" provide Elling's next ticket to the Grammys? Considering the Recording Academy's notoriously conservative tastes, Elling may be on to something.