1619 Broadway: Breathtaking moments that work gorgeously
“There's a melody in stillness I can't seem to play,” Kurt Elling sings yearningly, somewhere along the break in his natural range, during one of several muted but breathtaking moments on “1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project.” The lyric is his own, part of an extended flourish following the bridge of “So Far Away,” the Carole King song. And as is so often the case with Mr. Elling, the artistry lies in some intangible harmony of musical arrangement, interpretive detail and sheer vocal expression.
When any one of those elements skews the balance, the result can feel stagy or arch, overripe or overworked. So “1619 Broadway” might seem, on the surface, like a perilous exercise. As the title suggests, it's a concept album dedicated to the Midtown Manhattan pop factory known best for its songwriting teams. The repertory amounts to a mother lode of boomer nostalgia, and Mr. Elling could easily have made it solicitous or cloying.
As if to disarm that preconception, the album opens with a taut, harmonically unsettled arrangement of “On Broadway,” the striver's anthem still synonymous with its greatest steward, George Benson. Prefaced by an atmospheric montage of rejections, the track soon yields to Mr. Elling's assured delivery, a series of staccato bursts and swooning gusts meant to underscore his resolve.
He sounds unstoppable, as does his current band, featuring the pianist-arranger Laurence Hobgood, the guitarist John McLean, the bassist Clark Sommers and the drummer Kendrick Scott. Here and on a few other tunes, like “I'm Satisfied,” originally recorded by Lou Rawls, and “Tutti for Cootie,” a Duke Ellington chestnut, singer and background achieve a swinging symbiosis with the material. (The same personnel appears on Friday and Saturday at the Allen Room, courtesy of Jazz at Lincoln Center: jalc.org.) Elsewhere it gets a little hit-or-miss.
Perhaps a listener of stalwart Bensonian allegiance — the kind of person who has given some thought to a Smooth Jazz Cruise — might find something to like about this version of Sam Cooke's “You Send Me,” which feels suffused with candlelight and bath oils. I doubt there's anyone who could find genuine wit in Mr. Elling's version of the Coasters' “Shoppin' for Clothes,” with a chummy assist from Christian McBride, or much satirical edge in his cover of the Monkees' “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” despite its zombie references and jagged 7/8 meter.
But what works best here works gorgeously: “So Far Away,” and a stealthily creeping “I Only Have Eyes for You,” and especially the stark reading of Paul Simon's “American Tune” that now stands as one of Mr. Elling's purest and most restrained performances. He puts a special ache into the line “So far away from home,” which concludes the first verse: it's an intriguing echo, given that Mr. Elling left his native Chicago for New York four years ago. To quote another lyric handled gingerly on this album: doesn't anybody stay in one place anymore?