Interview: Kurt Elling visits his hometown to sing from a new Brill Building tribute

“Man, I miss that Green Mill gig,” Kurt Elling declares during a call from New York. “I wish there were a way to fly back and still play that every week.” The jazz vocalist, who left his native Chicago more than four years ago, reminisces from his Manhattan residence, taking time away from watching “Gangnam Style” with his six-year-old daughter to reflect on the town that made him the artist he is today.
This reflection is inspired not only by Elling's imminent return to Chicago to play City Winery, but also by last month's release of 1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project, an homage to his new home. That album is also—thanks to 200 road gigs a year and contractual clauses with Jazz at Lincoln Center and Birdland that prohibit him from doing the kind of regular spot he had at the Green Mill—an attempt to connect with a city he has yet to truly settle into.

“I can't say New York's home,” says the 44-year-old, “but I've made a lot of friends and I'm developing a map of what cats are here and where they play, and as a singer you're always looking for projects that tie things in emotionally and intuitively with your life. This album seems like a little adventure that ties into the fact that I'm here and I'm making connections—my manager's office is just down the street from the Brill Building.”

The nostalgic, beautifully sung and exquisitely arranged release features familiar tunes crafted in the iconic Manhattan office building from the big band era through the '70s, when writers like Sammy Cahn, Harry Warren, Burt Bacharach and Carole King perfected the formulas of American popular music. Although Elling's versions of songs associated with Sam Cooke, the Flamingos and the Monkees skew more pop than material he's often associated with, the album feels like a worthy companion to his 2009 work, Dedicated to You, the Grammy-winning John Coltrane/Johnny Hartman tribute that allowed him to shed the Susan Lucci–of-jazz albatross he bore after his previous seven releases were nominated and lost. While neither album represents Elling at his most ambitious, both deftly use the audience's familiarity with canonical compositions to demonstrate how Elling's decades of training in the Chicago jazz trenches made his voice a truly special instrument.

“I couldn't do what I do without the encouragement and influence of the musicians I played with in Chicago,” he says. “Karl Johnson, my first piano player at Milt Trenier's, he just swung really hard and gave me a sense of really belonging to the jazz scene. And I could not have gone down this road without Von Freeman and Eddie Johnson and Ed Petersen—all saxophonists whose big tenor sound defined the manly, rough and tumble, blues-tinged, stand-up-and-play-what-you-need-to-play thing that is Chicago jazz.”

Still, Elling is dedicated to finding his place in New York. When not on the road he's always catching shows around town, and he's been able to sit in with dynamic artists like Mike Stern, Charlie Hunter, Bill Charlap and Fred Hersch. One recent fruitful collaboration had Elling performing experimental spoken word with John Hollenbeck's Claudia Quintet, which Elling compares to working with Frank Zappa.

But despite the thrill of always being a train ride away from amazing opportunities, the former Hyde Parker assures longtime fans that his heart will always be near Lake Michigan. “Chicago is my home,” he says, “and the way Chicago sounds will always be a part of who I am.”