Is Kurt Elling the best male jazz singer working? That's a question I pondered after I finished Elling's new album for Concord Records "1619 Broadway The Brill Building Project". Elling has stiff competition in Jose James, Milton Suggs, Sachal Vasandani and Gregory Porter. Each singer is unique. James, for example, has a booming voice. When James belts a song he gesticulates like a rapper. Imagine Joe William's DNA mixed with Eminem's.
But, Elling is a certified freak of nature. Nine of his 10 albums were nominated for a Grammy. That's never happened to any other singer. "1619 Broadway" is Elling's 11th studio album, and his first shot at a full-length pop project. Of course, Elling knows some jazz conservatives are going to dog the project because he decided against singing standards. Those conservatives should take "1619 Broadway" out for a test drive. They might like how Elling customized some familiar pop hits.
What's the back story on The Brill Building? It's a landmark in mid-town Manhattan that had a small recording studio where many pop classics were born. Legendary pop songwriter such as Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, and Burt Bacharach worked there. After sorting through hundreds of songs made at the Brill studio, Elling selected 11 familiar hits. Then he poured his gorgeous voice over hits such as "On Broadway," "I only Have Eyes for You," "You Send Me" and "House Is Not A Home".
"1619 Broadway opens with "On Broadway," a song popularized by smooth jazz guitar player George Benson. Elling starts it with a clip of him on Broadway going from club to club begging for, but being rejected work. After the last rejection, Elling breaks into a blues tinged version of "On Broadway" that would make Benson envious. There're upbeat and even comical moments throughout the album.
On "Shoppin' for Clothes," Elling has a comical exchange with bass player Christian McBride. McBride plays a clothing salesman trying to get Elling to purchase a tailored suit, until he discovers Elling has bad credit. Then McBride threatens to call the police if Elling doesn't leave immediately.
Elling never changes any of the lyrics to the pop classics. Instead, he takes liberties with the arrangements, using for example, Auto-Tune on "Pleasant Valley Sunday," On Carol King's ballad "So Far Away", Elling singing would make an attack dog weep.
"1619 Broadway" has a few stinkers. "Come Fly With Me" is one, but the stinkers are overshadowed by Elling's take on "You Send Me," and on "A House Is Note A Home". The latter Burt Bacharach and Hal Davis co-wrote. Luther Vandross made it famous. So, is asking if Elling is the best male singer working a legit question? "1619 Broadway" is sufficient proof he is.