Kurt Elling — Up on the Roof

Question: what do 'Jailhouse Rock', 'Walk On By' and 'You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'' have in common?
Answer: they're the tip of a vast iceberg of hits that emanated from midtown Manhattan's fabled Brill Building between the mid- l930s and the early-1970s. And it's to this vast goldmine of songs that Kurt Elling directs his gaze for 1619 Broadway — The Brill Building Project. Ever the innovator, the album's song list contains even more surprises than last year's The Gate.

“It's funny,” Kurt explains to me on the phone from the US. “I was telling somebody here in New York who's a big Brill Building aficionado and he said, 'Oh the Brill, that's a great idea. You're going to do 'Yakety Yak' aren't you'?” Cue much laughter from Kurt. “And I said. man, I will try to take that suggestion seriously. I certainly don't know where it's going to fit but, sure, I'm not going to say no.” Jazz historians take note: 'Yakety Yak' doesn't make the final cut.

“Basically what happened between our last conversation ('The Truth Of The Song', Jazzwise #150) and now is that I really tried to consider what my reaction would be to the time I'm spending in New York. And I didn't want to take the well-trodden path. I'm very grateful that younger singers send me their discs and I love to hear what they're up to, but the sheer number of Gershwin recordings, Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter — all the people whose work contributed to the Great American Songbook — that material is obviously splendid and wonderful, and it's the bedrock of what a lot of jazz people consider to be the correct material. But, for me, the correct material is whatever strikes the heart and head of the jazz artist.”

It just so happens that Kurt's current manager has offices down the block from the Brill, so it's a landmark that's imprinted itself on his consciousness over time. “I said, man, I should look into that, because that building has been the home of an incredible, decades-long production house for music. Sure enough, the number of tunes that I had the opportunity to comb through numbered in the many, many hundreds. That really did it for me. It's a way for me to connect, I hope, with a broader audience and at the same time continue on in my work as a jazz artist.”

To help with the process of whittling down the song list, the singer turned to his friend, hit songwriter and educator Phil Galdston (who wrote 'Save The Best For Last'). “I didn't want to leave any likely possibility out just from oversight,” Kurt notes. “Phil not only had first-hand knowledge of the songs, but had also met a lot of the songwriting teams through his involvement in songwriting guilds and the Songwriters Lifetime Achievement Awards.”

Some choices, such as the classic lead-off song 'On Broadway', were foregone conclusions. Immediately grounding the album in the city of its making, the song — and indeed the entire album — serves as a tribute to Kurt's adopted home. “I realised that, at the same time that it's a New York story, it's an international story of people trying to get their music heard and get their ideas out into the world and make a contribution. It's a story of ambition and of taking hits and continuing on. Those are all things that I think resonate with this city.”

While some song selections instantly found themselves on the 'essential' list, others gradually floated to the surface. “I would say 'Pleasant Valley Sunday' was one that I didn't really take seriously.” Kurt tells me, “in the same way that — when I'm going through jazz compositions — I'll hear something glancingly and won't give it the chance that it deserves. And I have to wait for something in the back of my mind to remind me, tap me on the shoulder, whisper in my ear, 'Hey, wait a minute. what about this?' As soon as l knew how much I could twist that piece up, then it jumped to the top of the list again.”

Goffin and King's gentle dig at suburbia's 'keeping up with the Joneses' mentality is given the full Elling makeover here, transformed into a surprisingly edgy collage of retro guitar and 1960s sound clips (think a delirious mash-up of Ken Nordine and Charles Ives) that's a world away from The Monkees' breezy 1967 hit.

Originally arranged by pianist Laurence Hobgood for Kurt's Sinatra project, Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen's 'Come Fly With Me' is another song that, following an injection of Ellingian hipness, is utterly transformed. Drawing out the intense romanticism at the core of the song, the singer makes it sound entirely personal.

“In my research on the Brill Building it came to my attention that Jimmy Van Heusen worked as a song plugger going from office to office trying to sell compositions that he and other people had written to publishing houses within the Brill Building, for about 20 years, which is why it makes sense for me to put that composition in the context of a Brill record.”

With the recent passing of lyricist Hal David, a writer who harks back to the romanticism of Tin Pan Alley, the inclusion of one of his finest songs penned with Burt Bacharach, 'A House is Not A Home', is especially fitting.

“God bless him, he had a life full of creativity and craftsmanship,” Kurt notes, “and his name is going to be remembered among the great American writers, albeit of a generation or two later than all the Tin Pan Alley people.” As one of the few songs on the album that's been widely covered by jazz artists, from instrumentalists (Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, Eliane Elias, Joe Sample) to vocalists (Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald) I wonder how Kurt approaches singing such an iconic standard.

“I definitely do my best to check out what has happened before, just in case I can learn something. But as soon as we figured out we were going to do the piece in five, then it all fell into place and Laurence and I were able to do our thing to it. There's a certain moment, once Laurence and I are working together, that it unfolds organically and we can get to our shorthand of what we know the 'right' thing is to do.” The song also demonstrates the singer's remarkable facility for subtly changing a note in the melodic line in such a way that it releases a whole new power. On the repetition of 'chair' in the song's opening line ('A chair is still a chair'), Elling makes the melodic leap down of an octave, rather than the customary seventh. It's a tiny detail, but one that takes the breath away. Does he consciously seek out these hidden notes?

“Well, sure. I think that's what a jazz singer or a jazz musician does. You're trying to play a combination of melody that you, as the artist — and perhaps no one — has ever sung before. That's the hallmark of jazz and it's the hallmark of how one personalises the experience, just in the same way that you're setting the piece in a different time signature and reharmonising the chord changes.”

Given that Elling will chalk up 200 nights on the road this year — he's been to Europe and back four times tor extended stays, to New Zealand. South Africa, Japan, countless trips across the US — perhaps the most personal cut on the album is a cover of Carole King's 'So Far Away'. Before the year is out he'll be back and forth to Europe another four times, including his must-see show at the London Jazz Festival on 14 November.

“You can well imagine the sacrifice a family makes to allow one of its members to be gone that much and still have a home to come back to. As much as I love the road, I do know what that feels like: to worry that the road owns you, that you don't own the road. Cos I'm livin' it. On the road I'm lucky to get half an hour on Skype on a given day — that's a good day.

“I don't really keep track of jet lag any more. I'm just tired all the time,” he adds wryly. “It's a lifestyle that you get used to and that you come to accept. And you do it for the sake of being on stage in front of people and having the chance to sing and share music with them. And between that and trying to write music and trying to be true to a genre of music, and at the same time expand the boundaries of that genre, you just strive for that to be enough. Arid then you pray that your wife and your family can continue to forgive you and support you as you're out fulfilling your dream.”

While Elling's technical prowess on 1619 Broadway is often electrifying, the poetry and calm sorrow he finds in Paul Simon's haunting 'American Tune' reminds us that his way with a song's expressive arc is also extremely persuasive. “I thought it was important to just simplify for a minute and be true to the emotional message that is coming through,” the singer reveals. “It's a complicated little piece, because there's a lot of political messages in there and there's a lot of personal, socio-economic and historical background that goes into that lyric. So, for that to have the right flavour and the right spirit, you don't really have to do a whole lot of things to it. It's such a well-crafted piece that it tells its own story very, very clearly if you just clear the brush and sing it the way it needs to be sung.”

Talking of political messages, with the clock ticking towards November's US presidential election and a race to the White House that's too close to call, is the singer worried about the future direction of the US if Romney were to get in?

“I'd be worried about the entire universe if Romney's elected president. Man, we're all in trouble if that's the way it's gonna go. You're always concerned, as a citizen, that your nation could take a tum for the worse. And we're already in such a mess, not only as a nation but as a globe. The economic situation that we're suffering under, with people losing their jobs and losing their homes. that's due to the incredible greed of an oligarchical underground that has dictated more profits for themselves. The intractability and the recalcitrance of the right in America is despicable and nation-threatening. Whether it's a war on women, a war on citizen's rights, a war on the climate or on human consciousness, what we face is a very, very difficult, deep and sinister effort to wreck the consciousness of the States and to do as much damage as can be done to the rest of the world.

“I certainly pray and hope for Barack Obama's success,” Kurt continues, “and some kind of awakening in the right-wing of America: that they don't have to be afraid of change, that they don't have to be afraid of generosity, that they don't have to be afraid of sharing the incredible wealth of American resources. And that we can extend a hand to one another. I don't anticipate that it will change any time soon and the quickest way for it to go is for citizens to pay attention to what the right is really talking about, and to see the hidden — and now not so hidden — messages in their party platform and to defeat them with all speed.” Kurt Elling is not a man for sitting on fences.

For further reading on the Brill Building era. head straight for Ken Emerson's excellent 2005 book, Always Magic in the Air. To hear anew some of the greatest songs of the twentieth century, the place to go is 1619 Broadway – The Brill Building Project.