What a difference a year makes. When Kurt Elling celebrated the release of his debut CD last spring at the Green Mill, few people outside Chicago knew anything about him. This weekend's appearance follows a Grammy nomination in the jazz vocalist category--almost unheard of for a new artist--a slew of articles in newspapers across the country, and a barnstorming tour of European jazz festivals last summer. The world has started to find out about Elling, and it doesn't seem to have gone to his head: rather than just sitting back to take it all in, he has pushed ahead with new material and lofty goals. Elling's maturation as an artist has been both rapid and remarkable, like one of those time-lapse photography segments of a flowering plant. As a singer he has gained greater control of his exuberant style, which owes almost as much to the beat poets as to his personal pantheon of jazz instrumentalists. This control has made his explosive flights all the more purposeful--and absolutely stunning. As a songwriter and lyricist he has concentrated on ambitious new projects for his second CD, due in half a year, and some of these--such as a wide-screen lyric to Dexter Gordon's monumental "Tanya" solo from the mid-60s--have worked their way into his club sets. Just as Elling has grown as an artist, his songs themselves have grown, expanding in length as well as scope: some recent appearances have included only three or four compositions, stretched in performance to encompass a dizzying improvisational commitment between Elling and his band. Elling's partner-in-time Laurence Hobgood has emerged as one of the most powerful and accomplished young pianists in American jazz, while bassist Rob Amster has improved into an often riveting presence onstage. Drummer Mike Raynor, another young player on the fast track, anchors the trio, and emigre saxist Brad Wheeler--back home from Paris--adds his high-octane tenor playing to the mix. Friday, 9 PM, and Saturday, 8 PM, Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway; 878-5552. --NEIL TESSER
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bette Marshall.