Kurt Elling, 'Live in Chicago' (2000)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)

There was already reason enough to hail Kurt Elling as one of our new jazz-vocal titans when he released Live in Chicago, in the second week of 2000. The album, recorded at the venerable Green Mill, is a manifesto: by turns searching, scorching or sentimental. What it communicates above all is the depth of connection between the singer and the song, and the band, and the room.


A decade after this recording was made, I wrote a column for JazzTimes declaring Elling "the most influential jazz vocalist of our time." But almost every facet of my argument is already present on Live in Chicago, which gives Elling room to showcase his hyper-fluent, new-breed vocalese; his spark and swagger as a performer; and his empathic precision as a balladeer. His frame of reference is also distinctly contemporary, reflecting the tastes of an artist who came of age in the 1980s and '90s. 

One common knock on Elling, over the years, has been a charge of pretentiousness. I'm not among those who balks at the high-literary allusions in his lyrics, or the showbiz gleam in his presentation. But I will concede that to truly appreciate Elling, you have to go all in and take him at his word. A case in point: this version of "My Foolish Heart," his calling card at the time. In the middle of the performance is a mysterious detour: a poetic recitation of "One Dark Night," by the 16th-century Spanish mystic Saint John of the Cross. 

Purchase or stream Live in Chicago here.