The Brill Building holds a special place in popular music history, not just because of the songs crafted within its walls, but also because of what it has come to represent. The ideal of the Brill Building is associated with songs that soundtrack the lives and loves of millions of people around the world. Singer Kurt Elling's tribute to that ideal, 1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project, crackles with life as it connects with the emotions these songs engender.
Elling's position at the top of the male jazz singers' tree has been unassailed for over a decade, topping the DownBeat Critics' Poll for the thirteenth time in 2012, the seventh for the Readers' Poll. His richly expressive voice has much to do with this position, but it's not the whole story. Elling deserves equal praise for the originality of his interpretations and breadth of material. This album is strong on all three counts: Elling selects Songbook classics and pop favorites, throws in a few curveball interpretations and is on top form vocally, although his technical virtuosity threatens, at times, to overwhelm the lyrical message of "Come Fly With Me" and "On Broadway."
"On Broadway" opens with a short spoken word vignette where various "industry people" — played by a cast including Elling's longtime pianist Laurence Hobgood, and singer Dianne Reeves — reject the eager Elling as he attempts to persuade them of his talents. "Have you ever considered law school?" asks one. Of course, once he opens up with "They say the neon lights are bright...," their foolhardiness is exposed.
Elling adds a chunk of cynicsm to the cheeky satire of The Monkees' "Pleasant Valley Sunday" with spoken interjections of which guitarist/composer Frank Zappa would be proud: a terrific reinterpretation made even better by John McLean's crunching guitar. The reworking of "You Send Me" replaces composer Sam Cooke's soulful romance with a smooth '80s R&B vibe, the trade-off adding an air of sophistication, reducing the original's intimacy.
A delightful "Shoppin' For Clothes" features a guest appearance by famed bassist Christian McBride, but rather than his usual role — Clark Sommers does a great job in that department — he's acting. McBride assumes the role of an increasingly frustrated menswear salesman dealing with Elling's attempt to buy a sharp suit. It's a genuinely funny performance — if the bottom ever falls out of the bass playing trade, McBride's second career is assured.
Elling's finest performances are on ballads. Hobgood's arrangement of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "A House Is Not A Home" for the core quartet is exquisitely realized: cool, romantic and heartbreaking. Paul Simon's "American Tune" gets the simplest arrangement of all, just Hobgood's spacious piano and Elling's soaring voice. It's beautiful.
Were all of these songs written in 1619 Broadway? Probably not, but it doesn't matter. They are all recognizably Brill Building songs in terms of style, subject matter and sheer quality—in terms of the ideal. Great songs are characterized by their openness to fresh interpretations and, on 1619 Broadway, Elling gives them some of the freshest interpretations around.