Concert reviews: Kevin Mahogany, Milton Suggs, Brianna Thomas

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Kevin Mahogany

Jazz singer Kevin Mahogany. (Richard Ryals / July 23, 2014)

It was a fine night for singing: Three vocalists on two downtown stages, each artist with something significant to say.

At the Jazz Showcase on Thursday evening, Kevin Mahogany made a return to the city after many years away. Back in the 1990s – a booming decade for emerging jazz artists – the Kansas City crooner had been touted as the next great voice in the tradition of Johnny Hartman, Billy Eckstine and other resplendent bass-baritones.

That publicity was more than most vocalists could live up to, Mahogany included. His was a strong but not spectacular instrument, yet in a jazz world desperately in need of formidable male vocalists – then and now – Mahogany surely addressed a void.

Inevitably, the spotlight shifted elsewhere, as did Mahogany, who moved from Kansas City to Boston and, ultimately, to Florida, where he has lived for years. His return to the Showcase gave listeners a chance to assess whether he had been oversold in the first place, or if he really was the titan some asserted him to be.

Mahogany's opening set reaffirmed earlier impressions of him, the singer in command of an appealing voice that did nothing to challenge the eminence of Hartman, Eckstine, Joe Williams, Cab Calloway and other past masters. But those legendary artists have long since left the stage, making Mahogany's work more valuable than ever.

Moreover, Mahogany performed with a degree of self-assurance, maturity and ease that weren't apparent before. Singing as if he had nothing in particular to prove, Mahogany offered a smoothness of phrase and mellifluousness of tone that are more difficult to achieve than may seem obvious.

He opened with the jazz standard "Centerpiece," immediately foreshadowing the many joys and small frustrations of the rest of the set. When Mahogany dipped down into the lower range of his voice, listeners heard beautifully deep, dark tones. Unfortunately, Mahogany didn't venture there very often, his middle and upper registers not quite as distinctive by comparison.

Even so, the nimble scat singing that Mahogany delivered here and elsewhere reminded listeners of how few male vocalists dare to tread in the art of rapid-fire improvisation anymore. Mahogany was in his element here, especially in Billy Strayhorn's "Take the 'A' Train," performed at a ferocious clip. Bravo.

The evening's tour de force emerged in a duet with Chicago bassist Marlene Rosenberg, the two musicians bending pitches, stretching phrases and otherwise reconceiving Miles Davis' "All Blues" with abandon.

"She's all right," Mahogany said afterward, the comic understatement of that comment underscoring the easygoing virtuosity of Rosenberg's contribution. Joined on other pieces by pianist Steve Million, drummer Tim Davis and saxophonist Pat Mallinger, Mahogany could not have had much more empathetic accompaniment.

Earlier in the evening, two former Chicago singers now based in New York came home to launch the Made in Chicago: World Class Jazz series at Millennium Park, which plays every Thursday evening through Aug. 28.

Milton Suggs conceived a bold project for the occasion, leading a big band in his musical interpretations of poetry by Paul Laurence Dunbar. When Suggs was beginning his career here several years ago, he was an earnest but unprepossessing young performer. Judging by the first half of his show, which I caught before heading to the Jazz Showcase, he has come a long way. Suggs' ringing baritone gave voice to vividly original compositions. Though occasionally drowned out by his roaring big band, Suggs otherwise presided over a magisterial treatment of Dunbar's poetry.

The singer also showed considerably generosity in sharing the stage with vocalist Brianna Thomas, another former Chicagoan on the rise. Thomas' all-encompassing instrument and charismatic delivery established her as a major contender among young vocalists. The same applies to Suggs, who's now poised for great things and ought to develop and document his Dunbar project.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

When: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday

Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Court

Admission: $25-$40; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com

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