Kurt Elling’s ‘LA/CHI/NY’ at Steppenwolf:Elling blends poetry, jazz in new work

Only a hard-swinging, head-tripping, scat-singing jazz poet such as Chicagoan Kurt Elling could have come up with it.
And only a theater company as fearless as Chicago’s Steppenwolf would have dared to stage it.

Yet there it was, Monday night on the Steppenwolf main stage, a vast and sometimes apocalyptic view of urban life in America unfolding before a capacity audience that seemed to hang on every word and relish every riff.

Titled “LA/CHI/NY-A Journey Through the Streets of America,” Elling’s latest merger of high-flying poetry and cutting-edge jazz improvisation told at least a dozen stories, some comic, some tender, some unflinchingly grim. And though no single performance-piece-not even one as ambitious as this-could cut to the essence of life in America’s biggest cities, the new work surely attested to Elling’s perpetually expanding vision as artist.

In an era when bona fide young jazz singers are in perilously short supply, the under-40 Elling seems hellbent on rewriting the definition of what jazz singing is all about. To him, the art of articulating outrageously difficult melody lines at audaciously fast tempos is merely a starting point. From there, he ventures into performing original poetry, improvising lyrics on the spot and riffing in real time with an ever-changing cast of poets, vocalists and instrumentalists.

This time around, Elling ventured well beyond the confines of his earlier stage epics, including the provocative “Encounter Without Prejudice: An Open Tribute to Allen Ginsberg” (presented three years ago at Steppenwolf) and the somewhat provincial “This Is Our Music, These Are Our People” (a New Year’s Eve bash more than a year ago at Arie Crown Theatre).

If those shows zeroed in on narrowly defined themes-the philosophies of Ginsberg and the music of Chicago-“LA/CHI/NY” sprawled freely into several topics. That was probably inevitable, if only because Elling this time shared the stage with poets from Los Angeles and New York. The goal, said Elling shortly before the performance, was to convey the sense of three distinct American locales.

“If you look at the rhythms of each of these cities, they’re absolutely different,” said Elling. “Chicago has a burly, action-oriented but still self-assured and relaxed confidence to its stride. The city has a lot of wide-open space and all the possibilities that suggests. There’s a lot of horizontal grandeur here.

“In New York,” added Elling, “the drummers rush for a reason-because there’s so much energy crackling through everything in that city, and so many collisions at a highly accelerated rate.

“Out in L.A., things relax even further than they do in Chicago. There’s such a looseness to it, and there’s a potentially refreshing advantage to that.”

As if to emphasize the point, Elling shrewdly opened the evening with soliloquies from each of the poets, his own comic version of a dese-dem-dose Chicago accent yielding to the exquisitely melodic voice of New Yorker Tracie Morris and to the rumbling bass-baritone of Angeleno Kamau Daáood. In a burst of directorial inspiration, Elling eventually had all three voices speaking at once, a glorious Tower of Babel, American style.

Each poet went on to read his or her own work, while an exceptional ensemble of jazz instrumentalists provided atmospheric accompaniment.

For all the lyric beauty of Morris’ sensuous poems on love, it’s a fair bet that most listeners will remember her extraordinary, comic ode to odiferous feet- and why she demands that her lovers worship them. But even if Morris were reading the telephone book, she would be enchanting to hear, for she walks a delicate line between singing and speaking.

Daáood brought considerable gravitas to the proceedings, and not only because of the rumbling splendor of his pipes. In a haunting homage to the late pianist-activist Horace Tapscott, Daáood reiterated a single, chilling line at the start of each verse: “I am Horace Tapscott, and I am not for sale.” Indeed, Tapscott’s integrity and devotion to the young musicians of South Central Los Angeles made him a jazz icon for decades.

Ultimately, however, this evening said less about New York, Chicago or Los Angeles than it did about three distinctive poets and the exceptional instrumentalists who joined them (most notably the fluid eight-string guitarist Charlie Hunter and the protean Chicago saxophonist Mars Williams).

What Elling needs to do next is refine, develop and focus the evening-length piece, which stands as a promising work-in-progress.

Someone, somewhere ought to give Elling the means to take this stage work, or any of his others, and bring them to fruition through a longer engagement.

With that opportunity, Elling truly might be able to change the way audiences think about jazz, poetry and life in America.