Because of Kurt Elling’s regular appearances at the Green Mill (where he workshops new material most Wednesday nights), we in Chicago see his progress in its smallest increments. Occasionally it makes sense to step back and, like everyone else, look at the leaps he’s made. In every way, the new Man in the Air is Elling’s most audacious and original work since his 1995 debut. It contains a heady mix of jazz instrumentals of the 70s and 80s–including songs by Pat Metheny (“Minuano”), Grover Washington Jr. (“Winelight”), and Joe Zawinul (“A Remark You Made”)–for which Elling has written lyrics that capture the spirit of each song. In a few cases he rises above the source material, as with the Zawinul tune, here retitled “Time to Say Goodbye.” I’ve always found this piece cloying in its melody and clunky in its chord structure; Elling’s lyric has forced me to reconsider the original. (At Ravinia’s June jazz weekend, his rendition of this song mesmerized a crowd distracted until then by the unseasonably cold weather.) And then there’s “Resolution,” the second movement of John Coltrane’s iconic A Love Supreme–with Elling singing his own lyrics to the melody of the tenor solo. This is the first time anyone’s inserted words into one of Coltrane’s major works–the very idea is sacrilege to some–and it stands with jazz’s most ambitious and fully realized vocalese performances. I don’t love every note on the album–Elling has taken some big risks here, and a few of them don’t quite pan out. But his intelligence and integrity always shine through, while his musicianship has grown ever more polished without sacrificing passion. This CD-release concert stars Elling’s trio, led by pianist Laurence Hobgood, and the album’s main guest soloist, vibist Stefon Harris; Andy Bey, a reborn vocal hero of an earlier generation, opens the show. Saturday, August 23, 8 PM, Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan; 312-294-3000 or 800-223-7114.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.