Elling: Boldly re-imagining Hartman’s balladry

Two of Chicago’s most innovative jazz artists unveiled their newest music over the weekend, to often startling effect.
It has been a long time since singer Kurt Elling offered work that delivered on his early promise. But the sounds he produced Friday night at Wentz Concert Hall, in Naperville, pointed to a musician returning to the artistic values that made him noteworthy in the first place.

Unlike the lightweight fare he offered on his most recent CD, the disappointing “Nightmoves,” this time Elling dug deeper. Certainly he took on a formidable challenge in performing the repertoire of “John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman,” a classic album that partnered the iconic saxophonist with the magisterial singer.

The risk for Elling was considerable, since his pliant, reedy instrument is no match for Hartman’s ultra-plush bass-baritone (no one’s is). To compensate, Elling shrewdly enlisted the support of a string quartet. So what Elling’s voice lacked in sonic heft was obscured by the luster of pianist Laurence Hobgood’s arrangements.

More important, though, Elling boldly re-imagined Hartman’s balladry, performing this repertory (and other material) with the melodic ingenuity and daredevil phrasing of the early portion of his career. His buoyantly creative lines in “Dedicated to You” and arialike phrases in “Lush Life” represented some of the best ballad singing being performed today.

The only flaw in the proceedings concerned Elling’s ongoing genuflections to Frank Sinatra. Do we really need to hear another version of “Nancy With the Laughing Face”?

On Saturday night, drummer Dana Hall led an all-star quintet at the Green Mill in music more explosive than Elling’s, but equally well crafted. The high point arrived with Herbie Hancock’s “I Have a Dream,” which inspired shattering solos from saxophonist Tim Warfield and trumpeter Terell Stafford, and, of course, hyper-virtuoso work from Hall.