Two memories from this summer's Newport Jazz Festival: Kurt Elling bending the shape of "Come Fly With Me" into something personalized and provocative, and Elling beaming through the wry lines of Kenneth Patchen's "Job" while onstage with the Claudia Quintet + 1. The singer is a nimble actor. He has to be; a large part of his job is storytelling.
Something similar happens on 1619 Broadway, Elling's stroll through tunes overtly and tangentially associated with the Brill Building and its myriad writers. The nuances he's been honing throughout the course of 11 albums are not only in play, they're right up front. And in some cases, he's chosen pieces that are tough to claim. Designs have to be just so with non-jazz jewels like Paul Simon's "American Tune" and Carole King's "So Far Away," or things start to sound hokey real quick. Elling refracts the originals but in doing so bring a novel charm to the fore.
Those acting skills arise in a handful of performances. A spin on Sam Cooke's "You Send Me" conjures Brain Eno producing an M-BASE track, and in moments along the way Elling seems to be interpreting the lines of a script, like he's seducing his honey in shadows of a barroom. The album opens with a spin through "On Broadway" that carries the emotional oomph of an onstage soliloquy. One sacred text is left as is, and that too is a smart move. On the Coasters' "Shoppin' for Clothes," as Elling rolls through the herringbone suit repartee with his salesman pal Christian McBride, those thespian chops are front and center.
Revoicing classic chord changes, injecting new perspectives into ancient material, 1619 Broadway takes a few listens for its strategies to unfold, and some arrangements work better than others, but its imagination is irrefutable.
Three and a half stars: * * * 1/2