Jazz vocalist Kurt Elling revisits the history of popular song in ‘1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project’
Onstage, Kurt Elling is an exciting artist and entertainer. He smoothly veers from exalted exuberance to mournful whispers. In one set, he whisks audiences through to an emotional catharsis.
Offstage, Elling comes across as what he is: a former philosophy of religion student, someone who is thoughtful and gracious and especially humble. That last quality might be surprising for someone who has been acclaimed as the premier jazz vocalist of his generation.
Elling, 44, will bring his many facets to one stunning room next weekend, when he appears at the Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Elling won a Best Jazz Vocal Album Grammy in 2010 for “Dedicated to You” (Concord), a live recording from the Allen Room dedicated to the classic collaboration of John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman.
But the Chicago native, who has made the upper West Side his home since 2008, shifted paradigms for the recent “1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project.”
He wanted to mix things up.
“I didn't want to do what has been done to great success by so many jazz people,” Elling says. Others have tackled the much-mentioned American songbook, as defined by the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, and Rodgers and Hart.
“I'll always come back to them,” Elling says. But this time around, he had found inspiration in his adopted hometown.
“As a part of my reaching into the New York scene, and what it means to live here,” he says, “I passed the Brill Building many times, just on my way to other appointments. It seemed to be a logical thing for me to attack.”
Tin Pan Alley — W. 28th St., between Fifth and Sixth — dominated American music publishing at the turn of the 20th century. And the Brill Building, on Broadway between 49th and 50th, was an epicenter of music publishing from the 1930s to early 1970s.
As part of his latest project, Elling hooked up with a friend “versed in the history of the Brill Building” and compiled a broad list of songs.
“I intuitively gravitated to certain compositions,” Elling says. “I tried to let things simmer in such a way as the muse would give me some idea of what I could contribute to the reincorporation of those songs. What you hear is the end product of that.”
Elling gives new spin to songs by Paul Simon (“American Tune”), Duke Ellington (“Tutti for Cootie”), Carole King (“So Far Away” and “Pleasant Valley Sunday”), and Burt Bacharach and Hal David (“A House Is Not a Home”). He also tackles classics associated with Sinatra (“Come Fly With Me”), George Benson (“On Broadway”), and even Sam Cooke's “You Send Me.”
Next weekend, New Yorkers can hear live renditions of these numbers in the Allen Room. Elling has sung there in years past with Luciana Souza, Nancy King and Richard Galliano. This time he's performing with “cats from the record.” He first mentions pianist Laurence Hobgood, a key collaborator on this and other projects. Then there's bassist Clark Sommers, drummer Kendrick Scott (“a great inventor with a wicked groove”), and guitarist John McLean, whose guitar sound is central to the sonic palette of “1619 Broadway.”
“I'm happy to have a chance to sing there again,” he admits. The Allen Room is noted for its backdrop of Central Park and Columbus Circle, as seen through floor-to-ceiling glass.
“It's visually stunning and an aurally important and beautiful space,” Elling says. His latest show is part of Jazz at Lincoln Center's high-profile 25th anniversary.
“We'll have some special guests on horn, and some surprises,” he says. “We're going to have a lot of fun.”