Kurt Elling sets a new standard for his tribute album

For the past five years, Chicago-born, Grammy-winning jazz vocalist Kurt Elling has made Manhattan his home. And, after years of living there, he decided to record an album that's something of a love letter to his new homestead. Thankfully, there was a building he would often walk by that gave him the inspiration for what would be on this album.
“As it happens, the Brill Building stands at a location that's on the way to my manager's office,” says Elling, 45, on the phone from St. Louis.

“So I pass it very frequently. And, at the same time, in response to New York, I didn't really have any interest in creating yet another Cole Porter record or another record that dealt exclusively with standards – American standards or jazz standards – that was in response to New York. I wanted to find some other direction to go. And I felt that jazz musicians had not really tackled or been interested in Brill Building material as such. They may have done it piecemeal, and I don't know if anybody had done it as a complete recording before.”

Titled “1619 Broadway – The Brill Building Project,” Elling's eighth studio album has the baritone-singing, soul patch-rocking jazz stylist doing something more than putting a new, jazzy spin on familiar standards. “I just feel there are so many records out there from jazz people that have done exactly that,” he says.

“And I've done exactly that on many occasions. But I'm always looking for something unexpected and something that has as much a possibility of surprise – and a new experience – as I can muster. And this intuitively felt to me the right way to go.”

Elling culled 11 classic tunes that were penned by many of the legendary songwriters – Bacharach and David, Lieber and Stoller, Goffin and King, etc. – who had offices in the hit-record clearing house. “I mean, the Brill was really chiefly associated with doo-wop, and that's kind of, in its own way, as far from jazz as you can get, which makes it that much more challenging to find the essence of a composition, the melody and the possibility of beauty, from a jazz standpoint, something that we could make something out of.”

Even before he and longtime collaborator/pianist Laurence Hobgood got together to arrange the songs, Elling knew which tunes would work best. “On Broadway,” You Send Me,” “A House Is Not a Home,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday” – it's quite an eclectic batch of numbers. “There were many that just didn't make the cut, either because there just wasn't any substance there or because it just didn't appeal to me emotionally,” he says.

For Elling, it was all about performing songs “that I'm going to be happy to sing for 200 nights a year in front of people.”

“It has to be a selection of compositions that I feel I can bring something new to, to enlighten people's understanding of what a composition means,” he says. “You know, we all have these memories of how a song goes. Well, that's not how the song goes. That's just one version – one artist's version of how the song goes. If the song has enough flexibility in it, to make something entirely new and still retain its essence, that's one of the hallmarks of good writing. So my task is to find things that are emotionally accessible to me that I feel I could deliver and that I think audiences are gonna enjoy.”

His live set (which he'll perform at UNC-Chapel Hill Wednesday) consists of performing many of the jazz favorites – along with songs from the new album – that made him the popular, contemporary jazz artist he is today.

But he's always on the lookout for that great concept for his next album. Perhaps, since he's a Chicago boy, he may want to consider an album of covers from iconic blues-and-soul label Chess Records.

“I guess I haven't thought of that,” he says.

“Chess would certainly be a thrill. I'm not sure that I'm as much a rhythm-and-blues singer as that material would call for. Again, you know, I try to do things that I can connect with, and I certainly love that material. My guess is that I'll probably steer towards more straight-ahead jazz material this time and see what I can steer that in. I've done so many records now where I've been reaching out beyond the boundaries of jazz. I think it would be nice to plant the flag in my hometown again.