Kurt Elling: Stories from New York

Singer Kurt Elling seems to be always on the go, working with his fine quartet and lending his artful vocals to a variety of other projects as time allows. Whatever the situation, he brings high aesthetic values and standards. He likes to investigate different musical possibilities under the jazz umbrella, which he embraces without reservation.
“I don't deny it. I certainly identify that way,” he says of being labeled a jazz singer. “I feel that's the approach that I have to the music that I take on.” Not all singers identify that way, even if it is obvious from their sound and approach. But if one looks at his body of recorded works—nine solo albums since 1995, all Grammy-nominated with one win—and his live shows over the years, the assessment isn't difficult. Elling is steeped in jazz and is always being creative. Always searching for the right sounds, open to stretching. He also consistently trots out new material to work with. While he excels at singing the standards, new material he grasps for usually is not in that vein. Rather he gathers material he is attracted to and molds it according to his aesthetic. In doing so, people may not think “Song A” is particularly jazz, or “Song B” might be too pop-sounding. That's the part that doesn't matter to Elling.

He sculpts a song to show its beauty and add it to his ongoing pursuit to tell stories with some emotional depth and musical integrity. Sometimes, even some fun is involved as when he renders some of his own poetry a funky jazz soundscape laid down by his band mates.

Added to his aforementioned discography is his tenth solo album out this year, 1619 Broadway (Concord, 2012), which again brings in a series of new tunes. The selected compositions have a link to New York City, and in particular a structure called the Brill Building—it's address 1619 Broadway—that was once a haven for songwriters and hit songs.

“The Brill is the very well-known epicenter of songwriting in Manhattan,” Elling explains. “While it's not much of a songwriting epicenter these days, it has been a working building of the music business since the 1930s. Just about when the building was being completed being constructed. It's golden era—so called—began in the mid 1950s and ran up through just about 1970. It included songwriting teams like Goffin and King (“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”), Mann and Weil (“You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling”), and Burt Bacharach and David (“Walk On By”). Doc Pomus was based out of there.

“Based upon that so-called golden era, that it was a very important focus for popular music songwriting. But in fact, if you really look at the Brill Building history, you get a strong sense that the building goes way beyond what most people really think of as the classic Brill sound. Duke Ellington had offices there. Nat [King] Cole. Tommy Dorsey. All the way back to Tin Pan Alley people. Irving Berlin had offices there. That kind of a thing. I wanted, in my own career, to put something together that had New York as its locus. Instead of going to the kinds of people that a jazz musician would usually go to—Cole Porter, that kind of thing—I instead went to a number of the classic Brill writers, but also to the great Brill Building history in order to reap the rewards and give myself something interesting to do this time out.”

Kurt Elling—1619 BroadwaySam Cooke's “You Send Me,” Leiber and Stoller's “Shoppin' for Clothes,” Man and Weil's “I'm Satisfied” and, fittingly, “On Broadway” are part of the menu. “Come Fly With Me” is the closest thing to a standard, more and adventure in harmonic changes than Sinatra swagger. The jazziest is Duke Ellington's “Tootie for Cootie,” with a lyric written by Elling following a recorded trumpet solo by Cootie Williams, a longtime Ellington horn man. Paul Simon's “American Tune” is packed with emotion and cuts to the heart of its message.

“There is so much to choose from. There are thousands and thousands of songs,” says Elling, who got a long list of notable Brill Building compositions from a friend. “From there, I culled through everything that I could listen to, and also did my own homework, from songwriters from the building's inception. Also songwriters whose work has been directly influenced by the Brill. Paul Simon, for instance, only had a couple of songs that came out as a classic era Brill writer before he moved away. Now, as it happens, he continues to have offices in the Brill Building. I was able to include a latter day composition of his in this as well, just as I was able to include 'I Only Have Eyes For You,' which was written back in the 1930s.”

Elling also selected songs by Carole King—”So Far Away” and “Pleasant Valley Sunday”—who was not centered in the Brill, but was headquartered down the street a bit on Broadway, however important during that era. “The things from the epicenter had to be included. But I didn't want to be didactic in my choices, I wanted to have the primary reason that I was choosing a composition be my own love for that song and the fact that I had some kind of an idea of something I can do to and for that song,” says Elling. “Rather than 'Well, here's what we have to go through in order to prove the point for our term paper.' That doesn't interest me nearly as much.”

[Kurt Elling—© Tracey Nolan]

Elling and longtime pianist Laurence Hobgood exchanged ideas on the material and together and cooperated on many of the arrangements. Hobgood arranged some of the other songs. This excellent collaborating team was in synch. “We definitely worked on that together until we were satisfied,” Elling notes.

Elling say it's not difficult to encompass songs outside the jazz lexicon, “provided they have an architectural coherence and a statement of their own that they're making. Laurence and I have the same approach regardless. If we take on 'You Are Too Beautiful,' we just try to do what's right for the song and the way we are hearing it. It's beautifully structured. It's a beautiful lyric. Some of these compositions … for instance, on this record, 'Pleasant Valley Sunday' … Sure, it sounds a lot different, but our initial question is the same as 'You Are Too Beautiful.' What can we do with that? Where do we begin? What's right for this piece? As Duke Ellington said: The material is immaterial. It's all what you do with it.”

The recording is serene and polished, offering fans more musical treats to chew on from this band, which now includes Clark Summers on bass, John McLean on guitar and the marvelous Kendrick Scott on drums. The group's coast-to-coast U.S. North American tour started in October in Vancouver, Canada, and continues into next year, though with some breaks. A year from now, the band will be touring in Europe.

Elling also enjoys changing it up, getting away from the comfort of his quartet, to get involved in other projects; other challenges. In 2012, Elling did some touring with seven-string guitarist Charlie Hunter, joined only by drummer Derrick Phillips, in a pared-down setting that dealt with a different repertoire and opened up to a more freewheeling style. “A little bit more room for me to make my own notes happen,” Elling says. There may be more of that in the future, as time allows.

A different challenge. A different setup,” is what prompts Elling to try different projects, like singing with a big band, or with pianist Fred Hersch, or drummer John Hollenbeck's Claudia Quintet, all of which have occupied some of the singer's time in recent years. “We all need a break from our usual creative environments in order to find a couple of new notes to play. I know that I won't have the chance any time soon to make a much larger project out of my time with Charlie. So, inasmuch as I can throw a quick summer together of touring and minimal number of rehearsals and just have fun with it—that's a nice change of pace for me … It depends on the occasion and what ideas are percolating.”

“It was a ball. Charlie's a great musician and a wonderful friend. He's so funny and great to be with on the road. He's got a marvelous sense of humor. He's there to be really supportive and play whatever is right for the music. Between Charlie and Derrick and me, we just had a ball,” says Elling.

“He's a great, great singer,” Hunter says. “Being behind someone like that, I just feel like I could play all day. Simple stuff, which is the stuff I like to play … I like doing the instrumental thing as well. But I love just sitting back there and grooving and trying to create a nice groove for him to do what he does over it. That's a pretty satisfying feeling.”

There are some other projects on the horizon as well. Elling be recording with the WDR Symphony Orchestra in Cologne, Germany, in December. “We'll be doing expanded Michael Abene orchestra arrangements of the charts that Laurence and I came up with for the show with [accordionist] Richard Galliano some time ago. That show will be called Passion World. I'm going to sing in six or seven different languages and I really look forward to doing that.” the release will probably be in 2014.

Elling is also going to be doing some 2013 gigs with saxophonist Tommy Smith and the Scottish Jazz Orchestra. So it's continuing to be busy for this jazz singer. He says the state of jazz singing these days is very good, and expresses confidence that there are vocalists out there taking up the cause.

“I think there are a lot of great players out there right now among the jazz singers. I'm very hopeful about Gregory Porter's career. He's got a beautiful sound and a really nice concept. I'm happy to hear him developing and see him getting some recognition and gigs where he can really stretch out. J.D. Walter, who's less known in the states, is very well known in Eastern Europe. He's been touring for a month now in Eastern Europe. His concept is very forward thinking. Very well-developed and exceptional. Virtuosic, really. I'm proud of him. I want to see him get some more. Theo Bleckmann, obviously, continues to make very beautifully crafted works of art. I'm happy to have his company out there in the world.

“Among the women, Becca Stevens is writing some very beautiful things and has a richly textured approach to music. It lights up like a firefly when she sings. She's so wonderful to hear and so wonderful to be in the presence when it's happening live. Gretchen Parlato, another virtuoso-level performer. I'm, interested to hear how her thing continues to develop. She's so smart. There's a gal up in Canada named Laurie Cullen. She's not known in the states at all. I don't know how much touring she does. But my goodness she's got a great sound and a very smart concept … It's definitely happening. Jo Lawry and Kate McGarry. They're a couple of great singers going down their own paths. There's quite a few really good people out there at this point. And that doesn't even include the fact that Mark Murphy is still making incredible last-minute additions to his oeuvre. And Jon Hendricks is ready to blow any night of the week in any room in the world.”

So is Kurt Elling.