Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

Chicago Music Legends: Kurt Elling

Chicago Artists, Festivals, Jazz No Comments »

kurt-elling-cfa8e157efb3618f

By Robert Rodi

This is the first in a series of profiles of Chicagoans who have enriched both the city’s and the country’s musical life. Succeeding entries will appear on an irregular basis.

Every baritone jazz singer has to stand comparison to Frank Sinatra, whose shadow looms over them so unremittingly, you want to take pity and just equip them all with miners’ helmets. And it’s true that in terms of sheer tonal beauty, Kurt Elling—the bari-jazzman of the moment—doesn’t quite match his famous forebear. Elling’s wiry, scrappy, middleweight-boxer of a voice, marked (or marred, depending on your point of view) by the occasional flatness of Chicago vowel sounds (he was born here in 1967), is an entirely different animal from Sinatra’s opulent, resonant, cello-like instrument. Sinatra’s voice is all roundness and legato; Elling’s, at its most characteristic, is serrated and staccato.

And yet the way in which Elling doesn’t quite measure up to Sinatra pales into insignificance next to the many ways in which he surpasses him. Elling’s range is an astonishing four octaves, double that of Sinatra’s, and his boundless facility for improvising is so far beyond anything Sinatra ever exhibited, there aren’t even analogous samples to set side by side for comparison. Read the rest of this entry »

Lolla Day One: All About Paul

Festivals, Live Reviews, Rock No Comments »
Photo: Brian Hieggelke

Photo: Brian Hieggelke

By Craig Bechtel

Paul McCartney’s singing voice may not be as strong as it once was, but he hasn’t faltered in terms of one of his key talents, showmanship, and that was in evidence Friday night at Lollapalooza. That, backed with his songwriting partnership with John Lennon in a little band from back in the day called The Beatles, has cemented Sir Paul as that hoariest of rock and roll clichés, “living legend.” Given his position in The Beatles, his role as the leader of Wings and his substantial output as a solo artist, McCartney has a considerable song library from which to borrow and he did so tonight, including a few choice surprises.

He began the evening by inviting the large, enthusiastic crowd along with him on a “Magical Mystery Tour” and included other predictable Beatles numbers like “Lady Madonna” (accompanied by a slide show of inspirational female figures), “Let It Be,” “Hey Jude” and during his encore, the early classic, “Can’t Buy Me Love.” As the dragonflies danced through the air and the full moon appeared on the horizon, it was also no surprise to hear a rousing, sing-a-long rendition of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and a convulsive performance of “Back In The U.S.S.R.,” accompanied by a few quick stories of meeting Soviet military bigwigs, since he and his band were the first rock ‘n’ roll act allowed to play Red Square. Read the rest of this entry »

My Lollapalooza: A Variety of Guides to Navigating the Festival

Festivals No Comments »

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This summer, as we did last, we asked a handful of Chicago music writers to sketch out their own personal Lollas: who they’re seeing, where, when and why. A few of them begged off, with the explanation that they were skipping the festival this year; some others, similarly minded, still volunteered (rather wistfully) their theoretical itineraries. Overall there was a noticeable lessening of enthusiasm for the event, for which there are some fairly self-evident explanations. First, Lollapalooza debuted in 1991, which makes it older than many, if not most, of its attendees—rendering it less a happening than an institution. Second, it’s become a victim of its own success; the Chicago lakefront is now choked with summer music festivals, all of them inspired at least in part by Lolla, with more cropping up each year (Mamby On the Beach being 2015’s new arrival). And finally, the newer festivals have the advantage of edginess, rawness and a more street-level commercialism than Lolla, which has become a corporate behemoth—capable of swallowing unsuspecting day-trippers whole, and spitting them out hours later, shaken and slack-jawed and wondering what the bloody hell just hit them. But that very enormity is what makes a tastemaker’s guide—like those below—all the more essential. Read the rest of this entry »

Offbeat: “Halo” Composers Collaborate with Paul McCartney

Ambient, Blues, Chicago Artists, Festivals, Folk, Interviews, New Music, News and Dish, Orchestral, Pop, Rock, Singer-Songwriter, Vocal Music No Comments »
Paul McCartney, Martin O'Donnell, Michael Salvatori

Paul McCartney, Martin O’Donnell, Michael Salvatori

By Dennis Polkow

Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori have been friends back to their college days in the 1970s when they were in rival bands in the western suburbs. “We’ve always been very competitive with one another,” Salvatori recalls. “Marty came in to record five songs with his band, so of course, I had to write better songs and record those as well.”

While Salvatori was working for his father’s printing company, O’Donnell was painting houses to put himself through music school. “They were shooting a television commercial and Marty was painting the set. The director found out that he was a composer and offered him five hundred dollars if he would write some music for it. I had just taken out a loan for a basement recording studio setup and Marty called up and said, ‘If you let me record there, I’ll split everything with you fifty-fifty.’ We put ourselves out there on a handshake and collaborated on the commercial as O’Donnell-Salvatori, like Lennon-McCartney. It has been that way ever since.” Read the rest of this entry »

Chef’s Special: A New Course from Kelis

Funk, Interviews, Pop, R&B, Soul No Comments »
Photo: Laurent Levy

Photo: Laurent Levy

By Kenneth Preski

The best way to understand an artist is to meet them on their own terms, something that’s exceedingly difficult to do with Kelis, a musician who’s made a career out of defying definition. Check her track record: “Caught Out There” in 1999, “Milkshake” in 2003, “Bossy” in 2006, “Acapella” in 2010—a decade worth of hits to undermine any criticisms about her artistic vision. These songs resonate because of Kelis’ exceptional ability to layer vocal harmonies with a shifting timbre; striking a delicate balance between hard and soft, the opposing textures of her voice veering whichever way the mood shifts. Kelis has used the technique to create songs that are spiritual and sexual in equal measure, standout track “Floyd” off of her latest album “Food” emphasizing her skill in the endeavor, a heavenly refrain about being blown away. Through her music, Kelis is both sacred and profane in a world that can’t get enough of either. Read the rest of this entry »

Record Review: “Billy’s Back on Broadway” by Billy Porter

Big Band, Jazz, Pop, R&B, Record Reviews, Soul, Vocal Music No Comments »

RECOMMENDEDbillyporter

There was a time when it was natural for show tunes to make their way to the pop realmsingers like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra all borrowed songs written for the stage and turned them into standardsincluding “On the Street Where You Live” (from “My Fair Lady”) recorded by Nat King Cole; “Luck Be a Lady” (from “Guys and Dolls”), a hit for Sinatra; ‘Till There Was You” (from “The Music Man”) famously covered by  The Beatles; and of course  “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” (from “Evita”), a tune overplayed even before Madonna got her hands on it.

Nowadays it is unlikely for such songs to contribute to the Hot 100 even with the help of heavyweights like Bono or Elton John—the business has just changed too dramatically for that to happen (do you really hear anyone belting out “Seasons of Love” from “Rent” at your local karaoke bar?). That doesn’t mean that some tunes don’t deserve to be heard by non-musical theater fans, and that is where Billy Porter comes in. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Spyro Gyra/North Shore Center for the Performing Arts

Jazz No Comments »

RECOMMENDEDSpyro Gyra

How many bands in the world (any genre, go ahead) do you know that are name-checked in a classic pop lyric? Excluding The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, there aren’t too many (no, “Moves Like Jagger” is not about the band). The odds of a jazz group being included are extremely low, but Spyro Gyra is one of the chosen few–their name is brought up in Jorge Ben’s “País Tropical,” a world music hit that many of his fans sing along to even though most might not have a clue what he is singing about.

Led by saxophonist Jay Beckenstein and keyboardist Tom Schuman, Spyro Gyra has been one of the most influential groups in the jazz-fusion and world music scenes since the band’s inception in the 1980s. Spyro Gyra was also a launching pad for names like trumpeter Chris Botti (who played with them in the 1990s), percussionist Cyro Baptista and vocalist Bonny B. On their latest release “The Rhinebeck Sessions,” the group distances themselves from their recent smooth jazz direction to reach back into their funk/fusion roots, embracing straight-ahead numbers that showcase the group’s individuality. Read the rest of this entry »

Record Review: “New” by Paul McCartney

Pop, Record Reviews, Rock, Singer-Songwriter No Comments »

RECOMMENDEDpaul-mccartney-new-album

Per Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, some are too old to rock ‘n’ roll, but too young to die. At seventy-one, Paul McCartney seems to defy the odds by relentlessly touring and consistently releasing new music. On his aptly titled “New,” he briefly looks into the past but has his eyes firmly locked on the future by working with young producers like Giles Martin (son of George Martin) and Mark Ronson, who all collaborated to give McCartney a more contemporary sound.

The disc opens with “Save Us,” a track reminiscent of Queen guitarist Brian May’s solo work via its multi-tracked vocals and layered guitars. The title track (also the lead single) has a retro seventies feel thanks to its prominent use of synthesizers, its vocal structure, and its general mood. The song has an immediately captivating groove, especially the harmonies at the end of each verse. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: The Zombies/Mayne Stage

Pop, Psychedelic, Rock No Comments »

RECOMMENDED

Considerably less radical than hard psych bands of the sixties, less conceptual than the Dead and not as bookish as the Beatles, the Zombies appreciated a bit of Stateside appreciation, despite relative uncaring at home in the UK. The few singles making it into the charts—everyone’s heard “Time of the Season”—weren’t enough to keep the band from breaking up by 1968 and issuing its farewell recording, “Odessey and Oracle.” Before bidding the music biz goodbye for a few decades, the Zombies, led by singer Colin Blunstone and keyboardist Rod Argent, distinguished themselves from Brit beat bands by smoothing out the bluesy edges of their compositions, which frequently featured reasonably complex keyboard lines and solos—at least when compared to the Pretty Things’ early thuggery. Read the rest of this entry »

The Record Store Issue: Jazz Record Mart: Jamming for More Than Fifty Years

Blues, Jazz No Comments »

By David Witter

Like San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore, the Jazz Record Mart has survived for fifty-five years not only by selling art, but by becoming an integral part of the social, artistic and inspirational fixture that supports the creation of it.

Today, the store at 27 East Illinois features a selection of more than 15,000 jazz, blues, folk, big band and world music CDs. It also contains another 15,000 records, cassettes and DVDs. Jazz fans regularly arrive from as far away as Japan, the Ukraine, France and England, coming to look through the aisles of bins denoted by an uncorporate array of white plastic sheets featuring the artists’ names scribbled in magic marker, selling for as little as ninety-nine cents.

But the Jazz Record Mart did not gain its worldwide reputation by simply selling records. During its heyday, the JRM’s bulletin board and aisles served as a more socially interactive precursor to Craigslist: The store was a place where musicians found gigs, bandmates, business contacts and even a place to stay. Sixties rock icon Mike Bloomfield, harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite, Alligator Records’ founder Bruce Iglauer, and dozens of other musicians, writers and critics all worked behind the store’s counter. Read the rest of this entry »