CD Review: 1619 Broadway – The Brill Building Project

As with The Gate, Kurt Elling's previous release, the material presented on 1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project is largely a departure from American Songbook and jazz standards and a movement toward music with Boomer appeal. The song selections on 1619 Broadway are bolder, however, in that they place Elling squarely in the belly of the beast, Tin Pan Alley, a place once reviled by “serious” artists for producing saccharine sounds that pandered to the greatest enemies of artistic endeavor––money and the masses. As to whether Elling has gone this route as a defiant act against the establishment or to appeal to a broader base of music patrons, the jury is out.
Elling notes that the album speaks of his love for New York, and each of the songs presented is connected, directly or in spirit, to NYC's Brill Building, mid-century America's hot-house for pop music. Opening appropriately enough with the Drifter's “On Broadway,” Elling at once sings about the very street on which the Brill Building stands, while giving a soft nod to his career roots at Chicago's Green Mill, located “on Broadway.” On most cuts, the music is extremely well crafted, long-time collaborator and arranger Laurence Hobgood making one subtle, intelligent choice after another. To wit, “I Only Have Eyes For You,” on which Hobgood lays down a four-note rift from the opening of Gershwin's Second Prelude. Just as our understanding of life in 19th century England is largely based on Dickens novels, Woody Allen has seen to it that Gershwin melodies are inextricably linked to New York City.

The album is well paced stylistically and rhythmically, with ballads appearing at just the right time, the best of them being Bacharach and David's “A House Is Not a Home,” on which Elling is completely believable. He and crew provide less irony on the cover of the Monkees' “Pleasant Valley Sunday” than did the original group. Here, “status symbol land” is directly assaulted with a distorted, modulating cacophony––a style reminiscent of late-'60s British prog bands––which, perhaps unwittingly, contrasts the edgy, experimental music coming from London during that era with America's taste for “bubble-gum.” The arrangement and Elling's vocals (the most demanding and well-executed on the album, though they will not be appreciated as such by the casual fan) dramatically re-create the unstable underbelly and vacuous lifestyle of consumerist suburbia. The recording is not pleasant, but it's good.

As for the supporting cast, the rhythm section has not sounded better. After several years of shifting personnel, Elling and Hobgood have comfortably settled into a groove with Chicagoan bassist Clark Sommers, and well-traveled thirty-something drummer Kendrick Scott. They bring freshness to the group's sound, and with less than a year logged together the unit should only improve. Another Chicagoan, guitarist John McLean, seems to have graduated to the status of permanent member, and is well suited to material requiring a wide range of dynamics and styles. Vocally, Elling has mostly relegated himself to a corporate role––more buttoned down, ever less the renegade performing without a net. In a sense, 1619 Broadway is like the Brill Building itself––though not the most beautiful or interesting building in New York, it is nonetheless architecturally sound.