Kurt Elling – 1619 Broadway – The Brill Building Project
(Decca B008UTV4QW. CD Review by Alison Bentley)
Classic Elling: high energy jazz vocalese; understated funky grooves; gentle ballads; Beat performance poetry; humour; classic songs reworked in new ways. All these are on his new CD, which draws on the work of songwriters from the 1930s to the 1970s associated with this hothouse of popular song. The album is Elling’s tribute to New York.
On Broadway begins with the spoken voices of various ‘club owners’ rejecting the band: ‘We don’t need any of that oo-bop-de-bop stuff in here!’ After reading Elling’s ‘Guerilla Diaries’ on his website, recording his struggles to get his first gigs in New York, you wonder if these things weren’t actually said to him in real life. Elling includes his own lyric: ‘I’ve earned all my scars’. The vibe is minor, urban and restless,with a heavy funky backbeat from Kendrick Scott and a scorching guitar solo from John McLean. It’s more Miles Davis (You’re Under Arrest) than George Benson. Sam Cooke’s You Send Me is also funky, in a minor mode with cool guitar riffs. Elling’s voice is at times sensual and playful, revelling in the lower part of his vocal range.There are lush backing vocals and lots of space, with a wonderful Herbie Hancockian piano solo from Laurence Hobgood.
Hobgood is Elling’s long-term musical collaborator and arranger, and the rapport between them is as strong as ever. Hobgood has reharmonised Sinatra’s Come Fly With Me into slow 6/8, with exquisite horn backings. Elling has some of Sinatra’s astringent vocal timbre, but Elling is more romantic: the song is more dreamy, less knowing. In the 5/4 ballad I Only Have Eyes for You, Elling’s phrasing recalls Mark Murphy. Elling has perfect vocal control, moving suddenly from forte to piano, sometimes dramatically in mid-note- it’s a very emotive sound. Hobgood’s magic touch is also on the arrangements of A House is Not a Home (Bacharach/David) and So Far Away (Goffin/King).
When Elling’s sweet falsetto interweaves with Hobgood’s billowing arpeggios, it’s sublime. Paul Simon’s An American Tune (based on a Bach chorale) has a moving hymn-like simplicity, the voice enacting the struggle involved in pursuing the American dream.
Elling’s always a sharp-suited dude, and he adopts his Beat persona in Shoppin’ For Clothes, a very funny spoken dialogue between Elling and (unexpectedly) Christian McBride. The Monkees’ Pleasant Valley Sunday, already an anti-consumerist rant, is now a jazz-rock mix in 7/4, somewhere between Beat poet Kenneth Rexroth’s wry humour and Zappa’s anarchy.
br/> Elling can still swing like no-one else, and I’m Satisfied has a fine shuffle from bassist Clark Sommers and drummer Kendrick Scott, with Ernie Watts playing rough and smooth tenor sax. Elling is renowned for his vocalese, and his lyrics to trumpeter Cootie Williams’ solo (on Ellington’s swinging Tutti for Cootie) provide a witty and exhilarating conclusion.
Elling has an extraordinary vocal technique, a profound love of jazz, and the ability to find feelings in his own experience to dramatise every song: a kind of method-singing. This is a very fine album indeed.