Photograph by Anna Webb
There was a time when reviving the delicate wonders of the Gershwins and Cole Porter represented the leading edge of vocal songcraft. The only risk with such things anymore is smashing into someone else travelling the other way down the very middle of the road.
That’s what is so refreshing about Kurt Elling’s forthcoming 1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project — due on September 25, 2012 from Concord Records. Named after the famed Manhattan hotspot for mid-century compositional brilliance, this album strikes a smart balance between tradition and edgy modernity by delving into more recent examples of the form. In so doing, Elling illustrates how the legacy has moved forward in songwriting, but also within the vocal tradition.
Even the songs that are, by and large, deeply familiar are transformed by Elling’s achingly ruminative pacing (as on “Come Fly From Me,” a Frank Sinatra vehicle written by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen) and these of-the-moment musical touches (the angular guitar on “On Broadway,” a Leiber and Stoller collaboration that became a hit for the Drifters and a Grammy-award winner for George Benson). Taken together, they give 1619 Broadway a consistent sense of discovery.
Meanwhile, the Grammy-winning vocalist’s baritone, if anything, has added more depth since his mid-1990s debut. Though he still has the ability of work across four octaves, 1619 Broadway finds its deepest resonance when he explores the lowest end of Elling’s range. For instance, he transforms “You Send Me,” Sam Cooke’s 1957 crossover hit, into a simmering, wine-dark entreaty. “I Only Have Eyes For You,” easily the most famous thing about the 1934 motion picture “Dames,” is slower, darker still — almost like a cooing plea. “A House Is Not A Home,” appropriate with the recent passing of co-writer Hal David, is given a meditative reading, while Carole King’s “So Far Away” swings with a brokenhearted majesty.
Of course, Elling has always liked to shake things up with spoken word, jivey selections — and that penchant continues here with his reworking of “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” a No. 3 hit for the Monkees in 1967; and “Shoppin’ for Clothes,” a minor, largely forgotten hit for the Coasters in 1960. Offbeat selections like those provide their moments of levity, and the project would have been far more languidly paced without them, but I’ve never been able to square these breezy asides with the deft artistry they run up against. I always find myself getting antsy, eager to return to the songs where Elling takes himself, and his art, seriously again.
That said, adding “Clothes” underscores Elling’s gutsy choices for source material. Elsewhere, he takes on “I’m Satisfied,” a 1968 Lou Rawls song seeing just its second reading. Then there’s “Tutti for Cootie,” written in tribute to Duke Ellington’s legendary sideman Cootie Williams.
The album’s high-point arrives with a glowing take on “American Tune,” which Paul Simon based on a line from the chorale of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. In Elling’s hands, the song is less a fragile elegy for dreams deferred than a burnishing moment of determination, a deep breath before trying all over again — and trying harder than before.
In that moment, Elling makes the argument for a new kind of standard. And it’s about time.