JAZZIZ Q&A with Kurt Elling: Vintage Pop

Having lived in Chicago for most of his career, Kurt Elling moved to New York City four years ago. On his latest release, 1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project (Concord Jazz), the veteran vocalist covers 11 tunes, all of them penned by composers and lyricists associated with the famous address in midtown Manhattan, where, from the mid-1930s until the early '70s, hundreds of American pop songs were born.
What attracted you to the Brill Building catalog?

The wealth of material and the fact that the music hasn't really been attempted before as a unit. Since the mid-1930s, there have been songwriters and songwriting teams putting out music that everybody knows the words to. The Brill Building is a New York icon in addition to being an American icon.

Do you see common ground between the Brill Building sound and earlier songbook standards?

Most music historians think of the Brill sound as something that ended when the Beatles hit. It's interesting and ironic to read that those who love the Brill Building sound felt the same frustration with the incursion of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones as many jazz people did — feeling that jazz and great songwriting lost out at the same time.

You've lived in Manhattan since 2008. Do you think this album would've been made if you were still living in Chicago?

It's tough to speculate on what I might have made. So many of the things that I do are based on intuition and what is growing organically from my experience. I certainly haven't spent as much time deep in the bowels of the New York City underbelly as I was hoping to, but I have a 6-year-old daughter so there's not a lot of underbelly happening. But it's definitely a clear and, I think, honest reflection of what I'm hearing in music right now.

You've recorded a wealth of jazz and American songbook material in the past, but your last two albums have featured more pop-oriented fare. Was this a conscious shift?

I'm conscious of the decisions that I make, but I'm also conscious of trying to follow the muse and the intuition that I'm given. I don't feel any less of a jazz artist because I'm working with material that comes from a source other than Herbie and Wayne and Horace Silver. Jazz itself has always been a syncretic art form that has taken anything and everything that it finds interesting into itself and transforms it into jazz material. I hope that when I'm near the end of the road I'll be able to look back over my shoulder and see that I produced a body of work of integrity and of quality. That develops over time.