[11 December 2012]
In sheer talent and bravado, there’s not a more remarkable jazz singer out there than Kurt Elling. His instrument, a baritone to tenor beast that is pliant, rich, and utterly athletic, has no peer in jazz. And he has been making a series of records of great imagination—collaborations with his long-time pianist Lawrence Hobgood that take on the jazz repertoire in interesting ways.
The latest is 1619 Broadway, a reference to the address of the famous “Brill Building” in Manhattan where a couple generations of great songwriters created a body of work that spanned the late period of “The Great American Songbook” and the first wave (or two) of rock ‘n’ roll. This new album, then, takes in an idiosyncratic swath of American songs, from Ellington (“Tutti for Cootie”) to doo-wop (“I Only Have Eyes For You”) to Bacharach/David (“A House Is Not a Home”) to ‘70s singer-songwriters (Carole King and Paul Simon).
And, because he is a very interesting interpreter, Elling gets at these tunes in singular ways. The opener, “On Broadway”, works from a delectable seven-note lick that underpins the whole tune in a hip and slightly menacing way. The lick (for bassist Clark Sommers and guitarist John McLean) weaves through a strange time signature, with a couple extra beats breaking up the groove every few bars, and it rides atop electric piano comping from Hobgood—not his usual axe. It’s a good reading of the tune, no doubt, even framed by a bunch of street sounds and voices (people telling Elling they don’t want to hire his ‘ooo-bop-a-doo’ vocal talent, ironically).
But some of the gimmicky-ness of this track drags down 1619 Broadway in other places. The Brill Building was home to plenty of classic songwriting, but Elling doesn’t avoid some of the novelty content that came out of Brill. So there is “Shopping for Clothes”, a weird hit for The Coasters that Elling performs here as a little “skit” with the voice of bassist Christian McBride. And then “Pleasant Valley Sunday”, written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin for The Monkees—and not one of their good songs. Elling is utterly game on these tunes, investing them with all his hipster energy. On “Sunday” he delivers the verse through a “telephone filter” in a schticky tone of voice, while the band rocks out a tricky line and McLean plays an interestingly distorted guitar tone.
But the truth is, you’ll be listening to these tunes once, that’s it, then skipping them on future passes through 1619 Broadway. There are others not worth banishment, but only C- minus material by Elling standards. “I’m Satisfied” features slick B3 grooving and a truly fun tenor solo by Ernie Watts. And I’m not sold on Elling’s attempt to reharmonize and reimagine King’s great “So Far Away”, which sounds very beautiful here, wrapped in impressionistic chords and great cymbal washes—as well as Joel Frahm running saxophone licks around the vocal. But this new version, as much as it echoes the meaning of the words, doesn’t serve the song itself.
On the other hand, there are a four of five performances here that are as wonderful as anything Elling has ever done. And that means that they are timeless vocal jazz that busts down barriers. The funk feel that McLean puts beneath “You Send Me” is a great butt-shaking counterpoint to Elling’s simple take on the vocal line. This is a classic oil-vinegar kind of idea, with the tight drumming (Kendrick Scott) and minimal piano work just setting up the vocal for success. The band grooves really hard, and then Elling doesn’t have to overwork it, just twisting his voice a bit here and there to draw the juice out of the simple melody. The layers of background vocals (Elling, overdubbing nicely) are beautiful, and everything fits. “I Only Have Eyes For You” works just as well—transformed into a sizzling jazz ballad that is framed by an understated arrangement for a three-part horn section. The song is familiar but changed, with the original feeling of the lyrics deepened rather than just futzed with.
Better still is “Come Fly with Me”, a song that is owned, of course, by Sinatra and therefore requires a new approach. Hobgood’s arrangement is ingenious. He has composed a lovely new line, stated first by his solo piano out of time and then picked up by tenor and flugelhorn, which transforms the song from a standard swinger into—of course!—a kind of excursion, with the rhythm shifting from ballad to Latin to other sounds. Elling’s voice becomes light and airy, lifting the tune off.
The Ellington tune is also marvelous—a pure vocalese workout that has Elling putting words to an improvised solo and absolutely flying and testing every element of what he can do as a singer. Truly, this is the kind of thing Elling has made his specialty, but this one is particularly limber and organic. The horn section weaves through it beautifully, matching the vocal in just the way that Ellington knew how to balance a solo voice with the ensemble.
But forget even those two great recordings, because there are two other tracks here that are so good that I can’t stop listening to them in endless repetition. First, Elling has recorded here the very best version of “A House Is Not a Home” I’ve ever heard. This track contains no tricks or transformations. Rather, this is a brilliant singer taking on a great song with the support of a sympathetic band. The quartet (McLean with the trio) is all pastel colors and subtle support, and Elling brings his most even and lovely sound to the lyrics. Elling can do just about anything, so it is his restraint here that is admirable. The arrangement is very specific in places, with certain key words (“ends—in—teaaaaaaars”) being placed carefully along with the band, but in other places everything is open and Elling moves the notes to suit a whispered mood. Hobgood also plays a crystalline solo that is just right.
The highlight of the collection, however, is a duo for just Elling and Hobgood on Paul Simon’s “An American Tune”. This is one of those classic songs that exists somewhat under the radar and in the shadow of so many other great Simon songs. But here Elling rescues the song, for me at least, making me wonder why it hasn’t been covered by a million other artists in the last 30 years. Hobgood doesn’t significantly rework the song’s harmonies. He doesn’t have to. Rather, he reads the gospel chords with sensitivity and patience. Elling states the first line of the melody a cappella (“Many is the time I’ve been mistaken and many times confused”) before the piano joins, quietly. As Elling sings the refrain, “But I’m alright, I’m alright”, his vulnerability is said with no extra strain or effort. It is the perfect sound for this sentiment. When they get to the song’s bridge, Elling finally reaches up for some power, and it shatters you: “And I dreamed I was flying / And from high above I could see / The Statue of Liberty sailing out to sea.” By the end of this performance, I felt that I had never heard the song before and, truly, I hadn’t. (Plus, uh, I was crying.) Elling and Hobgood now own “An American Tune” as surely as Sinatra owned “Come Fly with Me”.
On whole, 1619 Broadway is a mixed bag. The weak links, for me, are the least interesting things that Elling has recorded. But the highlights are transcendent. Good enough to make this recording essential in many ways. Kurt Elling remains our greatest jazz singer because his powers of interpretation can make a decent song great and can make a great song . . . his own, maybe forever.