A U.S. premiere: Kurt Elling in Chicago, with a little Danish on the side

It’s been a pretty good year for Kurt Elling fans in Chicago. With this weekend’s appearance, and counting earlier visits to the Green Mill, the Old Town School of Folk Music, and Symphony Center (for the “United Sounds of America” series in June), he’ll have spent more time haunting his old homestead than in any year since he moved to New York in 2008.
Elling and his well-honed quartet, led as always by the brilliant pianist Laurence Hobgood, are back at the Green Mill this weekend for their fourth Chicago gig in 2011. But this time he’s brought along a few friends – 18 of them, in fact, in the form of Klüvers Big Band from Denmark. The band makes its U.S. debut with two nights in Chicago before heading to New York, Boston, and Washington, DC.

(In New York, Elling and Klüvers will celebrate his imminent 44th birthday at Birdland with an extraordinary series of nightly guest artists: alto saxist Miguel Zenon; tenorists Lew Tabackin and Ravi Coltrane; trombonist Robin Eubanks; and vibist Stefon Harris.)

Elling first met leader Jens Klüver while performing in Europe in the early 2000s, and has toured Scandinavia with this band on three occasions since 2004. The band itself has a far longer track record. Klüver, a saxophonist, formed his orchestra in 1977 as an amateur venture; within a decade or so, it had gained a strong enough reputation to elicit local and national governmental support, allowing the band to evolve into a top-line European big band.

That’s no small praise. Europe brims with state-supported jazz ensembles that rank among the most accomplished in the world. What’s more, it takes some work to get noticed just in Denmark: the sometimes overlooked Danish jazz scene has a strong history of excellence and has produced a small pantheon of noteworthy and influential artists, from the stupefying bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen to the electrifying New Jungle Orchestra of guitarist Pierre Dørge.

These days, Klüvers Big Band features a number of arrangements by Nicholas Urie, an American-born wünderkind arranger, who at the age of 26 has released two ambitious and uncompromising albums of original compositions while penning arrangements for a slew of other artists. But you really don’t require all these details to trust that the band will measure up; the fact that the famously perfectionist Elling has chosen to tour with them time and again (and now to host them in the States) tells you all you need to know.

For those who haven’t been paying attention over the last 15 years or so, Elling – a 2010 GRAMMY® winner (and nine-time nominee), and a perennial poll-topper among jazz critics and audiences – is generally considered the outstanding male jazz singer of his generation. This consensus stems from continually expanding range and musicality, in terms of both vocal technique and repertoire.

But it also reflects the undeniable innovations he has brought to vocal jazz in this century, from the seamless blending of jazz and poetry, through his extravagantly energized scat solos, to his extension of vocalese – the arcane practice of fitting tongue-twisting lyrics to previously improvised instrumental solos – to longer and more ambitious source material than anyone before him.

His shows in Chicago, like his well-received appearances around the globe, have drawn rave reviews on a regular basis. But his appearances with a large ensemble have been relatively few and far between here at home, giving this weekend’s homecoming an extra allure. As they say in Danish, “ude godt, men hjemme bedst.”

Elling and Klüvers Big Band play the Green Mill (4803 N. Broadway) tonight from 9 till 1 and Saturday from 8 till midnight.