Encores can trip up even the best musicians: following your own act promises few rewards and lots of pitfalls. But Kurt Elling, the dynamic young singer who holds an important key to the future of vocal jazz, has nothing to worry about. In every aspect, his latest Blue Note album The Messenger--for which this writer supplied the liner notes--represents a maturation over his 1995 debut. The original compositions, composed by Elling with his pianist, Laurence Hobgood, have greater depth and a glorious focus. Elling and Hobgood have gussied up the old tunes--which include "Nature Boy," "April in Paris," and, believe it or not, the Zombies' hit of 30 years back, "Time of the Season"--with arrangements so hip they almost swivel. Even on the outer-limits stuff they've jumped to a new level of musicianship: Elling scats at a blistering tempo on "Gingerbread Boy" (a Miles Davis favorite), and his "Tanya Jean" is a vocalese tour de force--a dense and thorny prose poem set to an eight-minute Dexter Gordon solo. Since recording the album Elling has been experimenting with all these songs live--and not merely with notes and words but with sounds, as he stretches his instrument to produce unexpected cries, whispers, and the occasional fire siren. (Yet for all that, he still treats a ballad with the tenderness of a brand-new lover.) This concert officially marks the release of The Messenger--and in grand style, as Elling includes on the program two venerable guest saxophonists, Von Freeman and Eddie Johnson, along with percussionist and vocalist Kahil El'Zabar. The prominent presence of these south-side stalwarts underscores two things: Elling's respect for the entire Chicago tradition, as opposed to just the youthful near-north scene into which he most easily fits; and his ambition to galvanize Chicago jazz by bridging the gap between musical constituencies. Sunday, 8 PM, Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport; 773-935-6860 or 312-902-1500. Elling also plays with Hobgood and bassist Rob Amster Saturday, 1 PM, Jazz Record Mart, 444 N. Wabash; 312-222-1467. Neil Tesser
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Kurt Elling by Bob Millard.