Getting Thrills From the Brill

On his version of Paul Simon's “American Tune,” Kurt Elling sings about observing life and work from both the outside and the inside. As Mr. Simon's lyrics dictate, he dreams he's flying, looking down on his own soul as well as the Statue of Liberty.
The song appears on Mr. Elling's new album, “1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project,” which he will unveil with “gala release concerts” on Friday and Saturday at the Allen Room at Lincoln Center. The album is a profound celebration of New York's musical heritage by an interpreter who is himself both an insider and an outsider.

For most of his career, Mr. Elling, who is 44, has been one of the most visible jazz artists on the Chicago scene. (He's such a diehard Illinoisan that he bought a condo from then-Senator and Mrs. Barack Obama.) But for the last four years, he has been a New Yorker, having moved with his wife and daughter to the Upper West Side in 2008.

“Moving here was in my mind for several years,” he said recently over a cocktail at Bistro Citron, near his Central Park West apartment. “I wanted to have a road map in my head: What's the scene here? Who's on it? What does New York feel like? Like the song says, I wanted to be a part of it. Wanted to meet more cats. Wanted to be in their presence. Be inspired. Challenged. Have my ass kicked. All of which has happened various times.”

The Brill Building album arose directly from Mr. Elling's experiences living and working in Manhattan.

“I'd be coming down to Midtown to do voice-over auditions in different studios, and my manager's office is just a block from there, and also Birdland [where Mr. Elling plays regularly] is just around the comer,” he said. “So I'd be walking by the Brill, and trying to get a bead on what the backstory is of the city and recognizing what an enormous resource, what an enormous catalog, what an inordinately massive influence the Brill has had on Western pop music.”

Indeed, for more than three decades, the Brill Building was the heart and soul of the American music industry. Most music buffs associate the tower with its final years of preeminence: the late 1950s and early '60s, when doo-wop and early rock 'n' roll were dominant and many of the biggest songs on the charts were composed by Brill Building occupants like Jerry Lieber, Mike Stoller, Carole King, Gerry Gofffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil — all of whom are represented on Mr. Elling's album. But the building also had a major role in the pre-pop epoch, the era of what the composer Jimmy Webb has called “pure” — songwriters who just wrote songs (and weren't performers), and pure singers (who didn't attempt to write their own material).

The corner of Broadway and 49th Street was, in fact, the home address for what was already known as “Tin Pan Alley,” and for the commercial music business from the Great Depression onward.

“I knew all those songs without realizing that they were from the Brill Building,” Mr. Elling said. “Everybody from Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey and Nat King Cole all had a presence there.”

The album shows that Brill tenants dominated the charts from before the big-band era, up through World War II and beyond (as represented on “1619” by Duke Ellington's “Tutti for Cootie” and Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen's “Come Fly With Me”), and into the mid 1960s.

In his role as a vocal interpreter, Mr. Elling uses the Brill material to dramatize New York existence, from the neon lights “On Broadway” to Leiber and Stoller's “Shoppin' for Clothes,” a scenario in which Mr. Elling plays an impecunious customer trying to get past a worldly wise department-store salesman (voiced by bassist Christian McBride).

The newest composition on the album is Mr. Simon's “American Tune,” from 1973. Mr. Simon is a singer-songwriter, thus representing the generation that followed many of the composers on the album, but, Mr. Elling pointed out, “Paul Simon still has office space in the Brill.”