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Windy City Forecast: Cool but Not Mild

Singers Kurt Elling and Patricia Barber are each on the rise, on their home turf of Chicago and nationally, by snubbing commercial formula.

August 15, 1999|LLOYD SACHS | Lloyd Sachs is the jazz critic for the Chicago Sun-Times

CHICAGO — On his second of three July nights at the Green Mill, a neon-lit club in the heart of the city's hardscrabble Uptown area, Kurt Elling hit an unexpected snag. Recording a live album for Blue Note, he was having no trouble mastering the tongue-trippingest vocalese--classic bop solos--outfitted with his own expansive lyrics. But he kept faltering on the opening melody of "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes."

Even after dropping his wordless, droning introduction and entering directly into standard, sweet and slow, Elling got waylaid by a word or key change. When his pianist and trusty co-producer, Laurence Hobgood, stopped a take, Elling flashed boyish exasperation. "That's not fair!" he cried, less bothered by the mistakes than appearing unsporting in not improvising his way out of trouble. The next night, the three-time Grammy nominee blew potent "Smoke," raising the song's bridge with soulful inflections reminiscent of Stevie Wonder and wrapping things up in a lovely, flowering coda inspired by jazz and classical pianist Keith Jarrett.

The evening after Elling completed his gig at the Green Mill, singer-pianist Patricia Barber opened her own three-night stay to record a live album. On her first song, she stumbled on a breakaway solo on her first song, an original, then stumbled again a few bars later. There was no work stoppage here. Cursing the errant notes with a nonplused grin, she scratched their bothersome itch away with a burst of technique and an ethereal sampling of her usually deep voice.

In triumph and momentary defeat, it was quite a week for the Chicago jazz scene. With PBS cameras documenting the back-to-back sessions on North Broadway, here were two acclaimed locals basking in their rising national profiles. More important, here were two originals, intellects to boot, achieving success against all odds by snubbing commercial formula: Elling with wiggy riffs and rants and cosmic searches, Barber with a blend of jazz, pop and poetry that has the slow sizzle and surprising sting of dry ice.

Armed with guest players including his idol Jon Hendricks and a saxophone choir including his mentor Von Freeman, Elling was aiming for what he termed "horizontal grandeur." One mockingly hard-boiled reverie, about a girl who was "honey on a razor," went on for nearly half an hour.

Leading her quintet featuring airy, texture-minded guitarist John McLean, Barber was in a more relaxed vein in recording a five-song EP on the heels of an unusual distribution deal between Blue Note and her small Chicago label, Premonition. Scheduled for a fall release, it will draw from Hammond organ covers of rock classics including "Black Magic Woman" and "The Beat Goes On" and is intended to reignite interest in her 1998 album, "Modern Cool," which was reissued Tuesday under the Blue Note/Premonition tag along with her 1994 "Cafe Blue." Never one to shine to a commercial ploy, the chronically outspoken artist played down the occasion. "What are you doing here?" she lightly remarked to a hometown critic. "You should come back when we're really doing something."

Tucked into a corner of the north side of Chicago's least trendy neighborhood, among Asian restaurants and decaying rock venues, the historic Green Mill wouldn't seem to be the most appropriate setting for such heady postmodernists. It reeks of the days when Al Capone hung his hat there, Sophie Tucker headlined, and its curious rococo trimmings (including Italian seaside murals in curved, scalloped frames) were fashionable. But even as the Green Mill channels the past, it winks at tomorrow under the ownership of Dave Jemilo, a straight-shooting, working-class guy who bought the landmark and restored live jazz to it in 1986 as a tribute to his father, who told stories of attending it in the '40s.

Jemilo gives performers carte blanche to go their own way--and a place to do that on a weekly basis for Barber, a Sunday and Monday mainstay, and Elling, a Wednesday staple. The club's open policies are emblematic of Chicago, where a stylistically broad range of jazz musicians are able to work regularly--an impossible goal in other cities--and aren't afraid to let newcomers share their good fortune by sitting in with them.

"I don't think there is a more inviting or enticing jazz environment for a young player," said Elling, who broke in by routinely performing at a different club every night of the week, on the black and white sides of Chicago. "I can count on two fingers the number of times a musician [gave him a hard time], and two weeks later, when they saw I was just trying to be right and play better and learn, the same cats welcomed me."

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