The Brill Building is an 11-story structure situated where Broadway crosses 49th Street seven blocks north of Times Square. Its fame comes not from the Brill Brothers clothing store on the first floor from which it derived its name, but from the popular music that was written in the offices up above. And although hit songs were being generated there during the big band era, the idea of the "Brill Building sound" dates to the rise of rock & roll in the late '50s and early '60s when songwriters like Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Neil Sedaka, Neil Diamond and Burt Bacharach and Hal David were working there or up the street at 1650 Broadway.
Kurt Elling's career has been like no other jazz singer's since his first album came out in 1995. He is the most honored vocalist of the last twenty years despite the fact that, as he told me in a 2006 conversation, "people think of me as unique, outré, bizarre." For his latest musical exploration, Elling turned to the rich catalog of pop songs composed within the Brill Building stable and its environs. 1619 Broadway is his most accessible recording to date, certain to garner even more accolades and expand his audience.
Though most of the selections are well known, the singer puts a distinctive stamp on each one, finding new meaning and making each his own. "On Broadway" is one of the catchiest numbers he's ever laid down, all decked out in a patina of funkiness. The Coasters' "Shoppin' for Clothes" is a jivemaster delight, a perfect fit for Elling's hipster persona. "I Only Have Eyes for You" is a gorgeous slow ballad, while Sam Cooke's "You Send Me" slinks along in a mellow groove that gives the old chestnut new life.
"Pleasant Valley Sunday" is cloaked in an off-kilter arrangement that goes to spooky places not even hinted at in The Monkees' 1967 hit version. Elling finds new depth in the Bacharach/David beauty, "A House is Not a Home," and his downtempo "So Far Away" pulls every ounce of ache and yearning out of Carole King's pop smash. Paul Simon's "American Tune" receives a soulful, reverential reading.
Kurt Elling's nine previous albums all received Grammy nominations. This one will undoubtedly continue that string. It is one of the best recordings of 2012.