By Philip Booth
The genesis of Kurt Elling's 1619 Broadway — The Brill Building Project, his Grammy-nominated 2012 CD, isn't complicated.
"I've been living in New York for a while, and I tend to pass that building on my way to my manager's office," the 45-year-old singer, once a mainstay of the Chicago jazz scene, said by telephone from a tour stop in Luxembourg. "That put it on my mind."
Soon, Elling's familiarity with the address, and its history as a celebrated haven for working songwriters from the '30s through the '60s, led to a viable album concept.
"People were trying to make hit records there, and sometimes they got lucky," Elling said. "As it happens, some were writing very high-quality music that also was very popular. I knew that out of all those thousands of compositions, there had to be 10 I could adapt. I went with the stuff that I could connect with emotionally."
Elling, bringing his quintet to the Palladium Theater on Friday, demonstrated an emotional connection with the 1619 Broadway material when he played the Clearwater Jazz Holiday last fall.
His ability to express himself through his voice developed organically. A Chicago native, the son of a Lutheran church musician, he played piano, violin, French horn and drums, and sang sacred music in various choirs while a child in Rockford, Ill.
"I feel like I've always had an emotional connection to music because of my growing up with it," he said. "It was always second nature to resort to music and to communicate through music. I had a lot to learn about jazz, though, a lot of technical things to learn."
Elling didn't develop a passion for jazz until attending college in Minneapolis, and he made his first serious forays into singing jazz publicly when he was a student at the University of Chicago Divinity School. After initially being inspired by the likes of Dave Brubeck, Herbie Hancock and Ella Fitzgerald, he began informally studying the tone, techniques and phrasing of such singers as Mark Murphy, Jon Hendricks, Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra. He also connected with Chicago musicians at famed Windy City jazz club the Green Mill and elsewhere.
"I didn't think of music as a vocation until I was hanging out with jazz musicians on the scene in Chicago and having them shepherd me into the mix," Elling said.
He found additional inspiration in the work of On the Road author Jack Kerouac, who, coincidentally, spent his last days in a St. Petersburg home less than 5 miles from the stage where Elling is performing on Friday.
"I got interested in Kerouac through Mark Murphy — his Bop for Kerouac record," Elling said. "Then I went to read all the books and found that that was rewarding. I like the early stuff, when he's still wide eyed with wonder, and when he's much more innocent. In his early works, he's a very sweet writer and soulful. By the time he was in Florida, he was pretty defeated, by alcoholism and sadness."
Recently, Elling's 200-dates-a-year schedule has featured work with large ensembles, including several orchestras and big bands in Europe.
"It plays to my stage bigness, the performance aspect of it," he said. "In a way, I can be a little overblown for the small group stuff."