A couple of years ago, the jazz singer Kurt Elling moved from his native Chicago to New York. As he said during his Saturday concert at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, he enjoyed exploring his new habitat, discovering the places where Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk once made musical history.
But in his concert, he didn’t sing a tune by any of those jazz giants. Instead, Elling ventured down a path that no other jazz singer has dared: the long history of pop, rock and R&B hits that came out of New York’s Brill Building.
Elling’s latest album, “1619 Broadway,” takes its name from the address of the Brill Building, a New York landmark where songwriters have toiled since the 1930s. On the album and in his Saturday concert, Elling focused mostly on the Brill’s glory years of the 1950s and 1960s, when such songwriters as Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Doc Pomus and Carole King were churning out hits for AM radio.
The challenge for Elling — and his audience — is whether the songs written for a post-rock generation have the musical and lyrical integrity of the classic standards from the Great American Songbook. Elling reshaped such familiar tunes as “You Send Me” and “On Broadway” into entirely new compositions, recognizable only through the lyrics and a few fleeting fragments of melody. The hard-edged funk rhythm was accentuated by John McLean’s electric guitar, as Elling’s vocals burned over a flame that was sometimes turned too high.
Elling and his band found a hip, bluesy groove on a little-known Lou Rawls tune, “I’m Satisfied,” but went the easy route by milking a few cheap musical thrills from Stevie Wonder’s “Golden Lady.”
No Elling concert is complete without a moment or two of sheer absurdity, which came in “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” a pseudo-psychedelic interpretation of a forgettable Monkees hit from 1967. Elling opened the tune with a long, spoken monologue that seemed to be one part Ray Bradbury, two parts Looney Tunes and four parts nonsense.
The best moments, by far, came in Elling’s simplest interpretations. He delivered Doc Pomus’s “Lonely Avenue” without a microphone, accompanied only by finger snaps, Clark Sommers’s walking bass and the occasional doo-wop vocal stylings of his backup band. It was corny and cool at the same time.
A straightforward reading of Bacharach and David’s “A House Is Not a Home” drew its strength from Elling’s understated storytelling, backed by the sensitive work of pianist Laurence Hobgood and drummer Kendrick Scott.
The evening’s true highlight, however, came in a song written in the Brill Building in 1934 by Harry Warren and Al Dubin and made famous by the Flamingos in 1959. You’ve heard “I Only Have Eyes for You” before, but you’ve never heard it like this — as a slow, mysterious ballad, with dark, minor-key harmonies. Elling’s baritone voice was at its most haunting, as he transformed a shopworn song into something tender, touching and true.