Kurt Elling was a long-time resident of Chicago, but he and his family have lived in New York City for the past four years. He wanted to record a tribute to the music of Manhattan without treading through the usual path of a standard songwriter tribute. Instead, his new album pays homage to a famous edifice.
"1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project" collects a wide range of classic pop standards written by composers who worked in this legendary office complex, or at its companion building at 1650 Broadway. Most of the songs come from the rock era, with two tunes each from Carole King and the team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, but there are also songs by Sammy Cahn, Duke Ellington and Harry Warren. Yet the arrangements (mostly by Elling and pianist Laurence Hobgood) blur the stylistic divisions.
Elling is a master of rhythm, and the album opens with two astounding examples: the spoken montage that opens "On Broadway" features a rich mosaic of spoken voices whose natural speech rhythms create an undeniable groove, and "Come Fly with Me", an old Sinatra swinger so thoroughly transformed that its 3/4 meter is hidden until halfway through the performance. Elling the eternal hipster emerges in a very funny cover version of the Coasters' "Shoppin' for Clothes" with Christian McBride as a store salesman, and in a wacky psychedelic remake of the Monkees' "Pleasant Valley Sunday".
Elling's expressive voice serves him well on the melodically revised Sam Cooke anthem "You Send Me", the understated version of "I Only Have Eyes for You" and on Paul Simon's simple but profound "American Tune". Fans of Elling's extended vocaleses will love the closing version of Ellington's "Tutti For Cootie" and he grooves with abandon on "I'm Satisfied" (aided by Hobgood's funky organ and Ernie Watts' soulful tenor). Elling's band has gone through a few transitions in recent years, but the present edition is a keeper with drummer Kendrick Scott providing subtle beats and beautiful shading, bassist Clark Sommers mixing standard bass lines with fine counterpoint, and guitarist John McLean revving up the energy with his imaginative solos.