Jazz vocalist Kurt Elling defies convention with his homage to Brill Building standards

Some purist types might not even consider Kurt Elling's newest release, 1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project, a jazz record. Elling — perhaps the most honored stylist among contemporary improvising vocalists — deliberately chose a musical path mostly far away from the usual formula of theatrical/film pieces, established standards and/or reworked bop and swing tunes.
Instead, Elling is paying tribute to a site that's been deemed rock 'n' roll heaven from a songwriting perspective. The Brill Building was the place where great tunesmiths from Gerry Goffin and Carole King to Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote anthems that are as much a part of the contemporary pop songbook as the selections of Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen or Cole Porter define the jazz ethos.

Elling, whose quintet performs this weekend in Franklin, dismisses the notion that singing “On Broadway” or covering The Coasters' “Shoppin' for Clothes” violates any past principles. “My collaborator [pianist/composer/arranger Laurence Hobgood] and I deliberately looked for songs we felt worked within a jazz framework, but gave me the freedom to do some different things, sing them in a manner that worked for me,” Elling tells the Scene. “And I'm very happy with this LP.”

They narrowed their choices from roughly 100 tunes, even including some surprises. Perhaps the biggest of those — aside from The Coasters — is “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” a Goffin/King tune that's a rare foray into social satire. But Elling also does “Come Fly With Me” and “I Only Have Eyes for You,” balancing the scales alongside “A House Is Not a Home” or “You Send Me.”

1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project continues a string of Grammy nominations for Elling, who has earned at least one nomination for all 10 of his releases. Dedicated to You won the Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album in 2009, and Elling's a masterful stylist equally accomplished with ballads, up-tempo numbers, original material or vocalese (putting words to melodies in formerly all-instrumental compositions).

“In my view, almost any song can be utilized in a jazz setting if you approach it properly,” Elling says. “I'm always looking for different tunes, songs that people may not feel you can legitimately perform from a jazz standpoint. Those are the ones that really interest me, that challenge me as a performer.”

Elling adds that a second volume of Brill Building material could be in the future. “There were some really good songs we had to leave off this one, so for the fans who are enjoying it, there may be more coming.”