On his most recent recording, "1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project," vocalist Kurt Elling rethinks some of the songs that have become standards for the baby boom generation – including Gerry Goffin and Carole King's "So Far Away," and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil's "On Broadway." He takes the Goffin-King tune "Pleasant Valley Sunday" and – through his musical arrangement, vocal inflections and a few lyric alterations – changes it to a darker vision than the one The Monkees made popular in the 1960s.
Elling will perform some of the Brill Building songs at Memorial Hall on Wednesday, "and I hope some favorites that people who follow us are looking forward to hearing, and some surprises," he said during a phone interview.
Surprise is arguably the norm in Elling's career. Since his first 1995 recording "Close Your Eyes," he has sung jazz standards while introducing new songs to the art of jazz singing – like The Guess Who's "Undun," and Joe Jackson's "Stepping Out." He has written lyrics to jazz compositions like Donald Byrd's "Tanya" and John Coltrane's "Resolution." He can scat sing, and on "Tanya" and other songs he shows his skill at vocal and word improvisation. He also has collaborated on poetry projects, including musical tributes to Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg and the great American poet Walt Whitman.
For the Brill Building recording, he wanted to find a different way of presenting songs that are familiar and have meaning for so many people. "I'm slightly younger than a lot of those songs. I'm younger than the golden era of the Brill Building," Elling said. Nonetheless, those songs have staying power and he was exposed to them when he was young. "At the same time, I don't really have a nostalgia for those songs, so the way that I came to the choices on the record is because I had an emotional connection [to the songs] … and there was something new and imaginative that I could create in this newer context."
In poetry, he has collaborated with Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater to do musical presentations of Ginsberg's poetry. He discovered the work of the Beats through singer Mark Murphy, who did a recording "Bop for Kerouac" that features musical settings of Jack Kerouac's writing.
He also collaborated with Durham-based singer Kate McGarry on pianist-composer Fred Hersch's record of Walt Whitman's poem "Leaves of Grass." (Elling also sang a duet with McGarry on her recent record "Girl Talk.") Elling said he had worked with Hersch before the Whitman project, which was his first time singing with McGarry. In addition to Hersch being "hugely talented and a great composer, as it is he's also a great matchmaker," Elling said. "He really pulled the two of us together for that project, the sound of her voice and the sound of my voice."
He came to jazz through "a series of situations," he said. He recalled cross-country car trips with his parents, who listened to the music of Nat Cole, Frank Sinatra, The Andrews Sisters and other artists on the radio. "So in a sense I had a second-hand nostalgia for World War II songs," he said.
His first live jazz concert was a Mark Murphy concert at The Artists' Quarter club in St. Paul, Minn. That concert "had a profound effect on me," but it did not make him a jazz singer. Later he saw Jon Hendricks sing, and soon "I was able to start sitting in with a number of great Chicago musicians, particularly tenor players," he said.
He has published a book of his song lyrics, but despite his poetry collaborations, he does not want to put verse to the page. "Poetry is really a discipline and an art form that is the most difficult. It has its own integrity. I think it would be presumptuous of me unless I really felt that I had a gift for that level of creative interaction with the world," Elling said.
"I really feel fortunate to have a voice, and to call myself a jazz singer, and be called one. The writing that I do comes out in that arena."