CD review: Kurt Elling

1619 Broadway – The Brill Building Project
(Concord Jazz 0888072339590)

Kurt Elling’s last album explored what I can only assume was his 1970s record collection, with interpretations of songs by Earth, Wind And Fire, Stevie Wonder, King Crimson and others from the rock and soul arena.

This time the Chicagoan is celebrating that other great city, the one where he now lives: New York. But instead of singing Gershwin, Cole Porter et al, he has picked his set list from the mountain of great sheet music that emerged if not from the Brill Building itself, at least from the pens and music copyists of those who had offices there or were associated with it.

So we get songs from Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill, Al Dublin and Harry Warren, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Sam Cooke, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, and Paul Simon. And although many  of these songs are hard-wired into the consciousness of anyone aged between, say, 40 and 70, a lot of us will be rewriting our “favourite version” lists.

I know that Mr George Benson has just been knocked off the top spot of my On Broadway top ten. There was a double whammy for the So Far Away top spot, previously jointly held by the composer herself and the terrific re-interpretation by Christine Tobin. Sorry, both! The composer gets trumped again on American Tune. And as for A House Is Not A Home, also previously jointly held by Dionne Warwick (of course) and Luther Vandross (yes, I have my weaknesses) – well, I didn’t think double perfection could be bettered. But, damn it, I was wrong!

You can always guarantee a fine arrangement with Elling’s long-time collaborator Laurence Hobgood around. The pianist has a golden touch when it comes to re-working standards and finding new complementary riffs and revoicings. What has extended Elling’s instrumental landscape is guitarist John McLean, who brings the searing rock edge when it’s needed – as here on On Broadway – and added funk – as on You Send Me.

Clearly a lot of this material gets worked up to comfortable studio standard on the road, as we hear here on this May 2012 Paris version of Come Fly With Me:

That lovely riff – it gets a horn arrangement on the album – sets up the new version and subverts any Sinatra comparisons, and the way Kurt plays with the melody and timing is clearly already established on stage. He also plays around with the tune to great effect on I Only Have Eyes For You.

There is loads of Elling’s hipster humour on the album. On Broadway, the opener, gets a tongue-in-check self-deprecating intro as a whole bunch of guests, from Kurt’s wife Jennifer to Dianne Reeves, impersonate Broadway Club managers administering those “scars” of rejection Elling will sing about. Shoppin’ For Clothes is a spoken dialogue with Christian McBride playing the “don’t shit me” tailor, while the closer, Tutti For Cootie, is classic Elling vocalese over the Duke Ellington/Jimmy Hamilton tune, with a gutsy full horn arrangement from Hobgood.

But, hey, at the centre of all this lovely playing and arranging is the man the Independent newspaper called “Possibly the greatest jazz singer alive today”. I think increasingly the only word one can quibble with there is the first one.

The seven-minutes of A House Is Not A Home is just breathtaking. Elling starts fairly low-key and then, using the gentlest reworking of the tune and his full arsenal of varied tone, timbre, timing, phrasing, vibrato, melisma, emotional nuance and vocal range, he develops the song into what feels like a whole short story of complex longing and heartbreak – by the time we are into the lyrical highs of floating falsetto and curling phrases at the five-minute mark the hairs on the back of the neck have not only risen but are popping the champagne corks and shouting triumphant hurrahs.

I’ve yet to make it through that track without uncontrollable and joyful bouts of appreciative swearing. In fact I have been jubilantly swearing a lot throughout this album. And jumping about the room. And emailing and texting my friends about it.

Just when I thought I had outgrown that teenage desire to pull passers-by off the street and force them to listen to what has sparked my all-consuming enthusiasm: Just listen to this! Hear that? That little drum fill there? That’s Kendrick Scott – isn’t that just perfect? Oh, and the way Kurt gets right into that swing groove there – the band’s just romping! And just listen to what he does here… and here… Amazing, man! Oh, oh, and this has just got to be the best bit…

Yep – you don’t want to walking past my house for a while. You’re better off just buying 1619 Broadway, which is released in the UK on Monday.

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