As a self-described confrontational artist, Kurt Elling has never lacked confidence in tackling any musical venture. Whether it is a re-imagining of the music of John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman in Dedicated To You or embarking on an evocative song cycle of jazz, pop, rock and soul in The Gate, Elling has shown that he listens to the past. In his latest outing: 1619 Broadway – The Brill Building Project he again demonstrates that he can draw people into the music of popular songs carefully crafted to provide a challenging listening experience.
Those individuals who are familiar with Elling's work know that he is unlikely to offer a traditional interpretation of any song he undertakes and therefore are unlikely to be disappointed here. Conversely, for the uninitiated, if standard renditions of these covers that might hark back to the original versions by George Benson, Frank Sinatra, Carole King et. al. are expected, then Elling offers delightful harmonic surprises. From the very first sounds of street chatter on "On Broadway," Elling and his long-time collaborator, pianist and arranger Laurence Hobgood, leap into the song to offer a new take on an old theme.
Being the consummate professional, Elling is able to use the material from different song writing generations to craft a musical adventure all held together by the performer's impeccable taste. For example from 1934 the Al Dublin/Harry Warren standard "I Only Have Eyes For You" along with the Sammy Cahn/Jimmy Van Heusen 1957 tune for Frank Sinatra "Come Fly With Me" are juxtaposed with the Sam Cooke soul ballad "You Send Me" to show that Elling can create inspired interpretations from diverse sources. While all the tracks live up to Elling's high standards, there are a couple of other titles worth mentioning including a rather hip spoken word version of "Shoppin' For Clothes" along with providing his own lyrics to the Duke Ellington/Jimmy Hamilton jazz swinger "Tutti For Cootie."
Clearly Kurt Elling devoted the necessary time to ensure that these songs reflected his intentions about creating musical challenge, and while some of his more ardent fans may question some of the choices, he has delivered a smart and daring album.
Four stars: * * * *