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."
Sam 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."