Music is in Elijah Levi's genes--the venerated Sam Cooke was a cousin--but he's done his part to develop the gift. Levi served ten years as a young-blood replacement in a latter-day version of the Ink Spots, a vocal group that presaged R & B in the 40s, and in the process acquired a polished, sanguine presence on disc and onstage. He has a supple, soulful voice that starts strong in its middle register and gets even stronger when he pushes it into falsetto range; on last year's Finally Elijah (Southport), his aptly titled debut, he warms up blues tunes from practically every era ("St. Louis Blues" to "Route 66") as well as less predictable vehicles like "Mack the Knife" and the bebop ditty "Lullaby of Birdland." But what most distinguishes the album is the way Levi nestles his voice into the spare backing led by bassist Tatsu Aoki. The rhythm section weaves spidery strands from guitarist Moto Makino (who works with the blues band led by Levi's wife, Yoko Noge) into the spirited shuffles laid down by drummer Dave Pavkovic (Pinetop Seven, Tricolor); they bring out the blue in Levi's voice even as they complicate the music with jazz accents and textural intrigue. Pavkovic and Aoki will appear with him this weekend; filling out the group will be pianist Ron Surace, whose clean chords and sprightly melodic lines promise to replace the album's grainier framework with tony elegance. Levi's sets conclude the sixth annual Southport Festival, which showcases artists who record for one of Chicago's most prolific and valuable jazz labels. Saturday, 9 PM, Pops for Champagne, 2934 N. Sheffield; 773-472-1000 or 773-281-8510. NEIL TESSER
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/B.P. Sparrow.