Kurt Elling and his trio should be on television. They appear regularly on Wednesdays at The Green Mill in Chicago, and his in-person performances are superb. Only the singer’s fourth album in five years, this one was recorded live July 14-16, 1999 with several influential guests. "My Foolish Heart," a carry-over from his last album, offers evidence of how different Elling’s in-person performances are from his studio sessions. The ensemble’s arrangement of "My Foolish Heart" on Live In Chicago
employs the same personnel, but is three times as long as the version recorded on This Time It’s Love
. Elling improvises the lyrics as well as the melody and toys with the song’s emotional power. His trio works with him hand in glove to heat things up appropriately. In early 1996 only a few die-hard jazz fans knew who Kurt Elling was when he visited Los Angeles. By the time his informal mini-tour was over, the whole town was wrapped up in his firm vocal style, unique exploratory raves, impressive audience interaction, and ability to weave his unusual ideas evenly among the counterpoint of his ensemble. Isn’t that what live performances are supposed to offer?
Reaching back into history, Elling and Jon Hendricks spin vocalese on "Don’t Get Scared," coolly supplying all the tricks of the trade. On "Goin’ to Chicago" Hendricks sings standard blues lyrics while Elling "goes off" with vocalese as if he were a spontaneous trumpeter filling phrase endings. Sting’s composition "Oh My God" swings with a dramatic spirit and a lyric message about world harmony. Lending a natural feeling, Kahil El’Zabar’s hand drums bolster Elling’s emotional fever. Scat singing Russell Ferrante’s "Downtown" with as much animation as the Yellowjackets in concert, the singer works in unison with piano to a bebop arrangement. With one of his other specialties during "The Rent Party," Elling espouses beat poetry to introduce Von Freeman as he and the singer "converse;" then, Ed Peterson, who drives the mood emotionally wild and crazy; and finally Eddie Johnson, who wails it (as Elling describes it to the audience) "buttery and warm." The three tenors then jam with the ensemble and carry that mood over to the final track. Throughout the session, Laurence Hobgood matches Elling’s intensity, tossing out a few muscular keyboard strikes. Equally vital to the live session’s magnetic draw are lyrical bassist Rob Amster and scrambling drummer Michael Raynor. Every track on Elling’s highly recommended latest album is a gem. The combination of his natural vocal timbre and the singer’s "out there" postmodern ideas makes his future bright and ready for a wider audience.