Back in the booming 1990s, when jazz musicians of varying levels of skill were being signed to major-label recording contracts, Kevin Mahogany was heavily promoted as one of the next great male vocalists. That he appeared in Robert Altman's 1996 film "Kansas City" as blues belter Big Joe Turner only heightened his fame.
But like many jazz stars of the '90s, Mahogany has had a somewhat lower national profile in recent years, which makes his return to Chicago this week a welcome opportunity to assess the arc of his career. Was Mahogany overrated back then or is he underrated right now or both?
Certainly the attention that lately has been focused on Gregory Porter, currently the leading male vocalist in jazz, suggests that it's difficult to hold for anyone to hold onto the spotlight for very long.
"Like anything, the new item is always the hot item," says Mahogany, 55, speaking by phone from the midst of a European tour. "I was looked at for awhile.
"But the beauty, I think, of what I was able to do," he adds, is that presenters "still know who I am … and they're interested in working with me. I haven't had trouble working since I've left the major label – I've been pretty darn busy."
What does he consider his last recording on a major label?
"Depends on what you consider a major label," he says with a laugh, citing "Pride & Joy," on Telarc, in 2002. Since then, much of his music has been self-released, a common turn of events for many musicians, since most leading labels shuttered their jazz departments years ago amid the implosion of the record business.
In effect, singer Porter occupies a position of prominence once held by Mahogany, Porter's acclaim predicated on a mighty bass-baritone, impressive original songwriting and widely distributed recordings (such as "Be Good" and "Liquid Spirit"). Still, one would hope there that was room for several baritones at the top of jazz.
"I appreciate hearing new artists coming along," says Mahogany. "The beauty is (that) as you get older, you don't have to worry about competing anymore. We're not competing with those guys – we're adding them into the fold."
Surely Mahogany has paid his dues, having started out in Kansas City in the 1980s with no connections and no clout – just a fine instrument and a desire to sing and swing.
"He had just gotten out of college when he started first hanging out on the scene," recalls Chicago pianist Steve Million, who also launched his career in Kansas City. Million remembers the young Mahogany well and will be accompanying him this weekend at the Jazz Showcase.
"He was always very gifted," adds Million. "He had a big old baritone voice … and he had a knowledge of big band music. So he sort of knew – he was a little more musical than some singers, let's put it that way. … He always did a lot of scatting. He was able to do that very well.
"After I moved to Chicago, I believe he was calling me every now and then saying: 'Hey, man, I want to get up to Chicago and play gigs."
Soon enough Mahogany began playing various clubs in Chicago with Million and others, got signed to Enja Records, then to Warner Bros. and became – for awhile – one of the most prominent jazz vocalists in America.
"I was happy for him," recalls Million. "My perception was that it was a great thing for him, and it was a really good thing for jazz to have a vocalist in that style. We still don't have many singers in that range who can really scat sing and seem to be true jazz singers.
"Kevin has always been truly a jazz singer. I have done some soul and pop with him, and he likes to do that, but his heart is in jazz. That's where he lives."
But like many jazz artists, Mahogany saw his career change as the decades passed. In his case, it seemed as if he was performing less in the United States than before.
"Yes, but some of it is not by choice," says Mahogany. "It's a matter of being hired. … I've always been doing recording – just not on a consistent basis. At a record label, you can do something every year. I formed my own record label. We've been releasing more material as of late."
What matters most, of course, is not commerce but art. Mahogany believes that, over time, "hopefully my voice has gotten a little warmer. I've focused a little bit more on some of my own original material, writing in a blues-space style, which we'll do some of when I come to Chicago.
"I've been focusing on ballads – a Coltrane-Hartman situation," adds Mahogany, referring to the legendary collaboration of saxophonist John Coltrane with baritone Johnny Hartman.