For Kurt Elling, the opportunity to sing alongside legendary vocalist Jon Hendricks was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
"It was a thrill," he said after working with Hendricks for the new Elling album, Live in Chicago. "He's a beautiful, generous cat. We spent a few days hanging out, going through a few tunes and it really hung together."
Elling, 32, a former divinity school student, not only sings tunes by vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, bebop icon Charlie Parker and saxophone legend Lester Young but also quotes writers Jack Kerouac, W.B. Yeats, Hermann Hesse and Rainer Maria Rilke in spoken-word excursions he calls "rants." And on Live in Chicago, his fourth album for Blue Note (now in stores), Elling is in characteristically suave form.
The album was recorded at the Green Mill, a storied club out of Chicago gangster lore that is nowadays a prime locus of Windy City jazz. For the date, Elling and his band pianist Laurence Hobgood, bassist Bob Amster and drummer Michael Raynor invited such local heavyweights as tenor player Von Freeman and percussionist Kahil El Zabar to participate.
And then there was the 78-year-old Hendricks, one of the great singers in jazz history, once a member of the seminal 1950s'60s vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross and a founding father of vocalese, the art of making lyrics for previously recorded instrumental solos. Hendricks joined Elling on "Don't Get Scared" (RealAudio excerpt) and a rousing version of "Goin' to Chicago."
"We are just two cats trying to enrich each other, and ourselves, as best we can," Hendricks said of singing with Elling. "In this music, the person you play with actually tries to make you sound better. That's what I love about jazz."
On a repertoire ranging from such standards as "When Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" to more contemporary tunes by the Yellowjackets, Wayne Shorter and Vince Mendoza (for which Elling supplied lyrics) the group seemed at ease playing to a supportive crowd. Elling, a regular at the Green Mill, has been able to reap the rewards of keeping a working group together not always feasible in today's jazz economy.
"It's been a blessing for this group to be together now for almost four years," Elling said. "It's kind of like a collective striving for a musical goal."