Kurt Elling: His Lights are Bright on Broadway

It seems easy to predict that Kurt Elling's new Concord recording –1619 Broadway – The Brill Building Project — will receive at least one Grammy nomination, as that has been the unprecedented fate of his previous nine releases. It's also become predictable that reviews will cite Brill as “a new direction” for the 44-year-old vocalist, as each of his projects has offered some surprises in both content and concept. What is most predictable about Elling is his uncanny ability to envision new directions and then bring it home. Thus Brill succeeds on all counts.
Dubbed “the most important generator of popular songs in the Western world” (London Telegraph), Manhattan's Brill Building at 1619 Broadway has served as a cauldron of pop music creativity since the 1930s. The “Brill Sound” reflects some of the most iconic teams in the history of American popular music, including Lieber and Stoller (“Stand By Me”), Goffen and King (“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”), Mann and Weil (“You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling”), and Bacharach and David (“Walk On By”). In looking at a new concept for his next recording, Elling noted, “I didn't want to cover any of the New York songwriters jazz people usually go to: the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, all of whom I love; I wanted to reach out for something different for jazz. The vast collection of songs coming out of The Brill Building seemed like a gold mine.”

Researching the repertoire with songwriter/educator Phil Galdston, Elling found himself gathering tunes more associated with doo-wop than bebop — but he has never been one to avoid a challenge, either to his artistic range or image. The results are both stunning and entertaining, two words long associated with Elling's work. On 1619 Broadway, songs run the musical gamut from Cahn and VanHeusen to Ellington to Carole King and Sam Cooke, from ballads to blues to rock and pop. Appropriately enough, the album starts with “On Broadway,” with some faint background dialogue suggesting comments at auditions before Elling turns the familiar tune into a true blues, where “one thin dime won't even buy your shoes.” Sinatra's signature “Come Fly With Me” swings enough to feel like Broadway but Elling makes the tune all Elling. Focusing on the magic of the relationship (“because we are together”), he can convince us to drop all to fly away, knowing it will not be any ordinary adventure. Laurence Hobgood's piano adds beautiful accents.

Written by Lieber and Stoller for the Coasters, “Shoppin' for Clothes” provides an opportunity for Elling to exercise his penchant for spoken word, here in a dialogue with Christian McBride (in role of salesman) with tenor saxman Joel Frahm as soulful commentator. Carole King's “So Far Away” highlights the pathos of the lyric with an ultra-slow, shimmering plea from Elling, ambience heightened by Ernie Watts' sax and Clark Sommers' basslines. Turning darkly funky, “Pleasant Valley Sunday” melds electronic saracasm from guitarist John McLean, snippets of old audio, rumbling drums from Kendrick Scott, and Elling's own devilish interpretation. Lest we forget that Kurt Elling is at heart and soul a jazzman, the set closes with Ellington's “Tutti for Cootie”, highlighted by the opening duet with Sommers and Elling's unsurpassed talent for putting the blues at ease.

Like the Brill Building, Kurt Elling is a vast treasure chest of musical wonders, unfettered by genre if ultimately cushioned in jazz traditions. And we can only wonder, what next?