Blue Notes: 1619 Broadway – The Brill Building Project

There is probably no building in the world that has provided a setting for more songwriting history than 1619 Broadway in New York.
The Brill Building, as it is better known, was built in 1931, and attracted music industry businesses more or less from the date of its completion. Although the name is associated primarily with songwriters who spent time holed up there in the 1950s and '60s, pianos were being moved into office spaces well before the second world war.

Paul Simon worked there in the late 1950s, and still maintains an office in the building for his music publishing company.

Songwriters who worked in the building at the peak of its hit-making era included the husband and wife teams of Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill, as well as the partnerships of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, and Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

This remarkable location provides the theme for jazz singer Kurt Elling's latest album on Decca, 1619 Broadway – The Brill Building Project. Elling is a Chicagoan, and heavily identified with that city, but now lives in the Big Apple which appears to be the impetus behind these recordings.

“Having done so many projects about my love for Chicago,” he says, “I wanted to make something that spoke of my love for New York. I didn't want to cover any of the New York songwriters jazz people usually go to – the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, all of whom I love. The vast collection of songs coming out of the Brill Building seemed like a gold mine.”

The choices he made, with a couple of exceptions, aren't obvious for a jazz artist. Leiber and Stoller and Mann and Weill's collaboration, On Broadway, has a certain jazz pedigree thanks to George Benson's cover, but Kent Harris' Shoppin' for Clothes, which was a hit for The Coasters, and Goffin and King's Pleasant Valley Sunday, best known in the version by The Monkees, are more idiosyncratic choices.

A couple of choices, ironically, come from the early 1970s singer-songwriter era which banged the last nail into the coffin of the factory approach to generating pop songs which the Brill Building's tenants exemplified.

Simon had come a long way from his days as a young song plugger by the time he wrote American Tune. The song originally featured on his 1973 post-Simon and Garfunkel break-up album There Goes Rhymin' Simon. Elling's version here, simply accompanied by a solo piano, is the straightest delivery on the album. By contrast I Only Have Eyes for You – written by Harry Warren and Al Dubin in 1934 and a hit for Art Garfunkel in 1975 – largely deconstructs the tune.

King was divorced from Goffin and singing her own songs by the time she recorded So Far Away, which has also been given a jazz treatment by The Crusaders. Elling's version places stresses in unexpected places, and diverges significantly from the familiar melody and changes.

In an era when male jazz singers are mostly expected to sound like Michael Bublé or Jamie Cullum, Elling is an exceptional talent. Although he clearly has debts to both Frank Sinatra and Mark Murphy, he sounds like nobody but himself. He also has a sense of humour. This is a rigorously uncommercial record of self-consciously commercial songs. The arrangements take a little getting used to, but Elling finds hidden depths in many of the lyrics, and he really is in every sense a jazz singer rather than just a performer of the Great American songbook.

Elling holds an unusual record. Uniquely among jazz performers, all of his albums to date have been Grammy nominated. This one, his 10th, is unlikely to be an exception.

Take Three

Three other outstanding albums by Kurt Elling.

  • The Messenger (Blue Note, 1997): Elling's second album finds him tackling an eclectic range of songs extending from an uptempo Nature Boy to a highly unusual reworking of The Zombies hit Time of the Season.
  • Man in the Air (Blue Note, 2003): Elling sings his own lyrics set to tunes by Pat Metheny, John Coltrane, Joe Zawinul and Courtney Pine, among others. “The jazz album of the last decade”, in the opinion of The Penguin Jazz Guide authors Brian Morton and the late Richard Cook.
  • Dedicated to You (Concord, 2009): Not just a Grammy-nominated album, but a winner. This live album with special guest Ernie Watts on tenor saxophone is a tribute to Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, and includes all six of the songs they recorded together for the 1963 John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman album, plus a few from Coltrane's Ballads set recorded the same year.