Kurt Elling’s new CD up for a Grammy

On December 5, 2012 the nominations for the 55th annual Grammy nominations were announced.
Kurt Elling garnered his tenth Grammy nomination in the Best Jazz Vocal category for '1619 Broadway – The Brill Building Project'. Every one of his albums has been Grammy nominated; ten albums and twelve nominations in all.

The Grammy Awards will be presented in Los Angeles on February 10, 2013.

For years now Kurt Elling has been voted as the best male jazz singer in the world.

He proved it when he appeared at last year's Standard Bank Joy of Jazz. During that period I had the opportunity to interview him about his new CD which had not been issued at the time. This is what he had to say about it.

“The new record is called '1619 Broadway'. The address is of the Brill Building. For people who don't know it is a world famous address for music writers and for music publishers. Since the building's completion in the 1930s, almost since the doors opened it has been home to song writers, song publishers and now it has some rap recording and mixing studios in there.

“In its heyday it was home to tens of hundreds of song writing teams. Many of them crammed into very, very small, paper thin walled rooms, just room enough for an upright piano and a small writing desk for the lyricist. These song writing teams could hear each other writing songs, steal from each other, learn from each other and compete with each other. Even from its earliest days the building and its sister building at 1650 Broadway was home to hit song writers. Early on of course it was Tin Pan Alley people. Many of the Great American Song Book writers whose names we think of had offices in the Brill. I think of George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, I think of Jimmy Van Heusen being a song plugger, meaning a young fellow who was given a song on sheet music, and his job was to go to the publishing houses to office after office and manually play the songs, because they didn't have recordings of them in the early days. He would manually play the song for the publishers, and hoped they would be picked up and made into a hit song. He served his apprenticeship there.

“But really the heyday of the Brill Building and the years for which it is most known, and the 'Brill Sound' is used, really started in the late 50s and went through the 60s and into the early 70s it was song writing teams like Barry Mann, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Neil Diamond, Neil Sedaka. A lot of it was doo-wop music that came out of there, but it really was almost all of the popular music that you heard at the time, until the Beatles.

It's an interesting thing for jazz people because I've read articles from music lovers who favour the 'Brill Sound' who, in their way, were just as upset with the Beatles as so many jazz people are. We had everything. Ornette was blowing and everything was cool, you know all the jazz music was happening, and then those darn Beatles came. Well it turns out there are many Brill adherents who feel the same way. For my money it's home to generations of people trying to write great music. I've lived in New York now for almost five years. I'm a native of Chicago, I grew up there and I've done so many projects and so many individual pieces of music and art about my home town, and I wanted to have some kind of response to New York and this seemed like an obvious place to go without reiterating the Cole Porter songbook, or name your usual suspects in the world of jazz.”

With all the songs that have been written at the Brill what made him pick these particular songs for the CD?

“I usually have a greater number of songs available, and in the realm of possibility for a given recording project than we use. Ultimately what happens is my intuition kicks in and I say well song A is going to work, song B is not going to work for whatever reason. In the case of the Brill because I was starting from a concept, or because the concept was located to a location and a specific number of generations of song writers related to a specific address, then I had to know of the wealth of the songs that came out of that era and that location as I could and then I wanted to narrow it down from there. Even though all the songs were famous, there's just so many I had to document which songs had a real and legitimate tie, so I got with a friend of mine, who is certainly much more of an authority of the 'Brill Sound' than I am. He and I combed through the largest possible list then narrowed it down and narrowed it down and the way I narrowed it down was by listening and by letting my intuition guide me about just my own taste. What can I get behind. I remember I had kind of a crazy conversation with one of these Brill fanatics who said 'You're going to do the Brill, that's so exciting, you're going to do 'Yakety Yak' aren't you?' I said I don't think I am. there's probably better tunes out of the Brill than 'Yakety Yak'.

“And so I arrived finally after sifting through and there are a handful of more compositions I was hoping to include, but it just didn't get to fall together in the right way. Eventually even on a CD you run out of space so you can only go with the songs that fit on the record.

“In this case, since the Brill is located at 1619 Broadway and it still is. Paul Simon for instance still has his offices there, then it made sense to me go to “On Broadway” as a compositional choice as soon as I could figure out what to do with “On Broadway” by way of recasting it and making it in to our own musical idea, I was satisfied I could make something out of it. That was an exciting prospect for me to take something that has two or three signature incarnations and make it into something legitimately that I could feel in my heart, that sounds new. And at the same time I didn't just want to stay with the classic Brill era songs, because the Brill has been in existence for long enough, that a Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen composition can come out and obviously they were writing out in Hollywood and Las Vegas for Frank Sinatra and writing for the films, but the fact is both of them had apprenticeships in the Brill, so for me that's a legitimate connection, and to really give something of the breadth the web that has emanated from the Brill, and “Come Fly With Me” is such a great song.

“You Send Me” was an obvious choice. What made that work was John McLean's idea for the arrangement on that. “I Only have Eyes For You” was a big hit for the Flamingos. That one really harkens back to the earliest classic Brill era song writing teams. The important thing is for me to have an idea for the arrangement and for my delivery that is new and has a genuine quality to it that it sounds like it was written yesterday, or at least sounds like something I would sing. There is so much intuition that enters into it. The largest question that enters into it is can I get behind this, and sing it with honesty and can I get a thrill out of singing this?

I mention that the Sinatra version of “Come Fly With Me” is the iconic version, he jumps in with “Yes it is” therefore how difficult is it to get away from his phrasing and do something completely different?

“The thing to do is to listen to the composition and to let the composition speak for itself or sing for itself. In this case the arranger had the idea of putting it in 6, and as soon as he played the vamp he had in mind, I knew it was going to be something I could deliver in a fresh way. So that made it easy.”

Good luck Kurt.