Windy City Forecast: Cool but Not Mild

Lloyd Sachs is the jazz critic for the Chicago Sun-Times

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."

The conformist pressures that keep artists under the commercial magnifying glass in New York and Los Angeles are in short supply here. Unshadowed by big labels and supported by small ones, local players are free to pursue everything from the neo-swing of the Mighty Blue Kings, to the avant-garde explosions of saxophonist Ken Vandermark, recent winner of a MacArthur Foundation grant.

"In New York, if you wanna get a gig, you gotta start playing that Art Blakey thing [hard bop]," said Bill Traut, Elling's manager, who produced Chicago rockers such as the Shadows of Knight and Styx before moving to Los Angeles in the late '70s. "In Chicago, no one tells you what to do. A lot of that has to do with it being so isolated. I don't care if it's Smashing Pumpkins or the AACM [the Assn. for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the black free-jazz collective]. People in Chicago don't care what anyone is doing in the rest of the world."

"In places like New York and L.A., you start second-guessing yourself too soon," Barber said. "You ask yourself, am I hip enough to be here? Is this what's gonna get me attention? In Chicago, you don't have that. The music develops in rather an unfettered way."

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Barber, 43, was reared in Nebraska. Her father, swing saxophonist Floyd Barber, died of alcohol-related causes when she was 9. He had retired his horn to become a pharmacist. Against her mother's objections, Patricia took up music to live out his dreams. She made a name for herself in Chicago during the late '80s as artist in residence at the now-shuttered Gold Star Sardine Bar, a tiny but chic downtown room of which Bobby Short became part owner.

Bringing a dreamy but hard-edged introspection to standards, she revealed her debt to the late Bill Evans with her classically sculpted, bop-driven piano. Playing with her back to the audience, she built a large and loyal following. (Still an introvert, she uttered all of two sentences one night at the Green Mill, but was comfortable enough to dash barefooted to the ladies' room during a bass solo.)

With the release of her 1992 major-label debut, the fusion-style "A Distortion of Love," which featured onetime Evans bassist Marc Johnson, she seemed on the verge of national stardom. But just as it was released, her label, Antilles, was all but deactivated, and the album died. Offered a lucrative deal to make a slick vocal recording on which her piano playing would be computer-processed, she accepted, hungry for financial security. But she called back the morning after to turn it down.

"There was no way I could have lived with myself," Barber said. She was so depressed over the turn of events--and, she said, the lies and insensitivity of record-biz types--that she gave up performing. It wasn't until Jemilo called her in 1994 with an offer to participate in a torch song series at the Mill that she returned to the scene.

She almost departed again last year when offered a full scholarship to study ethnomusicology at the University of Chicago. She turned it down to support "Modern Cool," which would soon be released.

"In my heart, I knew it was going to be successful," she said of the album, which taps sources including the Doors and Maya Angelou, Turkish modes and Latin beats, while offering pointed commentaries on contemporary mores inspired, as is much of her music, by Joni Mitchell.

Premonition founder Michael Friedman, a former jazz drummer, aggressively and imaginatively promoted it from his kitchen, aiming at coffee shops, independent bookstores and gay and lesbian publications (Barber describes herself as a radical lesbian). Coming off the success of "Cafe Blue," which established her as a major attraction in such cities as Montreal and San Francisco, "Modern Cool" sold so impressively in this, the Diana Krall era, that it drew the interest of numerous major labels.

As happy as Barber is with the Blue Note deal, by which she retains artistic control, she couldn't help introducing a note of not-so-mock despair. "I had a perfect life," she said. "I'm making the music I want to and getting it heard. I bought a farm in Michigan to escape to. Now this. You wouldn't believe the complications."

Flaunting her independence--and, perhaps, tweaking her new corporate backers--she insisted on having the audience sounds between the tracks of the EP electronically "manipulated as music."

"If Patricia had her way, she wouldn't perform any of the songs from the album anymore," said her longtime bassist, Michael Arnopol. "I wouldn't be surprised if she tosses them out at some point so we can all fly by the seat of our pants the way we do at the Green Mill."

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If Barber has to psych herself up to speak to concert audiences, Elling was born to riff. An urbane hipster at 31, he thrives on rooms like the Green Mill that are susceptible to loud audience chatter. "It's better for me if they're overly juiced and I've got to rein that in," he said.

Born and raised in Chicago, he sang in church as a boy and studied violin and French horn. He didn't discover jazz until he was turned on to it while attending college in Minnesota. "I seemed natural to start singing that music," he once said, explaining his natural proclivity for scat. After he fell under the spell of Hendricks, Betty Carter and Beat devotee Mark Murphy, his future as a vocalist was assured.

Elling was a few credits short of a graduate degree from the University of Chicago Divinity School when jazz became his religion and bop legends such as Dexter Gordon, Wayne Shorter and Freddie Hubbard became his saints. He quit his studies to take lessons from established veterans such as Freeman, who featured him at his weekly jam session.

Freeman was among those Windy City regulars who played on a demo tape that Elling sent to Blue Note. Label head Bruce Lundvall was so enthusiastic about it that he had Elling record more songs for a full album, entrusting the production of "Close Your Eyes" to him and Hobgood rather than going the usual route and redoing the material with an East Coast cast and producer.

If you measure success by album sales, Elling has not fared as well as Barber, even with his Grammy nominations and extensive media exposure, including a profile on "CBS News Sunday Morning" and his own journal in Jazziz magazine documenting an unusual two-week tour of New York jazz and non-jazz rooms in 1997. But he shrugged off his commercial underachievement.

"OK, I'm not selling a zillion records," he said. "No one in jazz is if they're not Diana Krall. But things are cool. I'm riding things out, trying to make a living and trying to make good art. And in the process, I'm hooking up with beautiful cats like Von and Laurence and Jon Hendricks--Jon Hendricks, man--how can you beat that?"

Elling's hipsterisms have drawn charges of affectation. "Sometimes an interviewer will say, 'Don't you feel a little outdated with the way you're talking?' And I say, 'Man, what planet are you from? This is cutting-edge.' It's not that the language is necessarily new in repartee, it's that it's been allowed to age and mellow, so the common parlance is so nicely ingrained. And the rhythms have been allowed to age so that they have their own fluid around them."

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For all the seeming randomness of his flights of vocalese, there is method to his madness. "I go to extreme places," he said, "but I can point to all the sources: There's Kerouac, there's Yeats, there's Hesse, there's Rilke." And whether getting down with the Beat legacy or making like Robert Browning in tendering explicit expressions of love to his wife--Jennifer C. Elling, a modern dancer whose company, the Tyego Dance Project, he has collaborated with--he imparts positivism.

Perhaps his boldest stroke yet is his "Resolution," the second movement of John Coltrane's incantatory "A Love Supreme," hot-wired with his own mystical, spiritually charged lyrics. At the Mill, the words poured out too quickly to be grasped. But surging and subsiding with passion and conviction, Elling's vocal was gripping. And as spelled out on a lyric sheet, his call to people of all religious stripes to honor God--"Strike the bowl of heaven and the ringing will become a law"--was deeply moving.

In Chicago, where Elling has staged a tribute to Allen Ginsberg at Steppenwolf Theater and was named artistic director for the city's millennial celebration, all such things are possible.

"Out of the glare," said the singer, "we develop and we go so far down the road that we're down, by the time anyone takes notice of it, [and] it's too late if they don't like it, because we're already formed. That's good for jazz. Jazz is about the unique sound, the individual approach. You've got to have a space where people feel comfortable becoming themselves." *

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Kurt Elling appears next Sunday with Oscar Brown Jr., Janis Siegel and Mark Murphy at the John Anson Ford Amphitheater, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood. 8 p.m. (323) 461-3673. $20 and $25.

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