At this point in his stellar career, Kurt Elling probably doesn't need much of an introduction – especially not to jazz fans, who regularly pack his concerts and boost him to the top of readers' polls; and particularly not to Chicago, where he honed his art and rose to prominence before moving to New York in 2008. A few notable exceptions aside, most critics (myself included) concur that Elling is the preeminent male vocalist in modern jazz. So instead of rehashing the obvious – his magnetic baritone, his daredevil improvising, his pinpoint control of dynamics, his reinvention of vocalese (the art of fitting original lyrics to previously recorded instrumental solos) – better to take a look at his new album, which will supply plenty of material for this weekend's Chicago return.
Elling performs Sunday and Monday at the City Winery (1200 W. Randolph), Chicago's newest and swankiest music venue; it boasts a sound system that is acoustically superior to any other in town, along with a beautifully appointed room that's surprisingly intimate considering its size. (It seats 300.) The singer swoops in on the crest of accolades greeting 1619 Broadway – The Brill Building Project, his fourth album for Concord Jazz – an exploration of the 1960s pop esthetic, exemplified by such tunesmiths as Leiber & Stoller and Goffen & King, that centered on the address in the album's title.
By way of disclosure: I wrote the liner notes for this album, and also crafted the press release, which puts me way too close to offer any sort of capsule review here. So let's stick to the facts.
Although it dates to the 1930s – when it housed a raft of the composers and lyricists who created the Great American Songbook – the Brill Building in New York City is most associated with the explosion of songwriting that occurred in its honeycomb of offices and claustrophobic studios in the early 1960s. After a good deal of research, Elling constructed a program of former hits, all of them ripe for his signature approach to cultural restoration: he updates and complicates this music without abandoning its core. The selections range from the obvious ("On Broadway") to the not-so-much (the Monkees' "Pleasant Valley Sunday"), with a few jazz standards from the Brill's early years thrown in as well. With the superb pianist Laurence Hobgood acting as Elling's musical director (as he has for nearly two decades), and the galvanizing Chicago guitarist John McLean having taken a full-time role, Elling's band sounds just as tight as it needs to be.
Even before he relocated to New York, Elling's local appearances had dropped off: due to his herculean tour schedule, he didn't appear all that often at his "regular" gig, Wednesdays at the Green Mill, during the last couple years before his move. Understandably, he attracts near-record crowds at the Mill whenever he returns. But the Mill charges considerably less at the door than even the lowest of the three-tiered prices at City Winery ($35, $45, $55); accordingly, you'd expect Elling's debut at the new club to offer one sure test of its drawing power.
Since Sunday's show is already sold out, I think they passed.