On 2018’s The Questions, vocalist Kurt Elling used a classic jazz group helmed by saxophonist Branford Marsalis to interrogate a range of contemporary issues through classic songs from a variety of sources. In both its focus and its variety, it was one of the finest recordings in a stellar career.
Secrets Are the Best Stories is even more ambitious and possibly better. Elling’s latest is also a collaboration, this time with pianist Danilo Pérez. Clark Sommers remains in the bass chair, and Elling also uses drummer Johnathan Blake and percussionists Rogério Boccato and Román Díaz. But the feeling of this band is almost wholly different: impressionistic and minimalistic, with the musicians often playing quietly and in smaller groupings. The focus is on the lyrics, either by Elling to melodies by Pérez, Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter, Perez, Django Bates, or Vince Mendoza or by poets such as Robert Pinsky or Robert Bly. The subjects are dead serious: the politics of immigration and racism, yes, but also intimacy, isolation, and introspection.
Many of these performances are marked primarily by a sense of intimacy, as Elling’s voice is often paired with just one or two musicians, as well as layered in harmony with itself. The opening pair are songs by bassist Jaco Pastorius, with “The Fanfold Hawk (for Franz Wright)” being only voices and acoustic bass, setting a poetic investigation of freedom from constraints to a twirling, wandering melody that Elling makes more orchestral by adding brief flashes of stacked vocal harmonies. This quiet piece flows, uninterrupted, into “A Certain Continuum”, which invites Perez’s piano into the action, as the lyrics shift to the question of love:
There’s a ribbon / in the river / that is running through your heart
There’s a whisper / in the water / with a wisdom to impart: Restart … / be your own / work of art
Elling’s lyrics are rich in imagery and ambiguity, and some critics find them a bridge too far. This kind of artistic ambition, lyrically as well as musically, can feel like hubris. But Secrets Are the Best Stories manages all of this with grace, in large part because Elling does a wonderful job of marrying poetic language to the music. The phrase “be your own / work of art” matches a phrase from Pastorius’s melody that consists of two, rising, and skipping three-note licks. What may sound too easy or light or unclear as pure poetry comes alive in Elling’s mixture of music and words—and he practices the same care in putting Pinsky to music.
The music on the original “Continuum” is mostly Jaco, with Rhodes and drums in light support. Pérez builds out the tune with a more structured harmonic and melodic accompaniment, as well as lightning acoustic piano runs that frame Elling’s voice. The arrangement also uses hand percussion in combination with Blake’s drums to develop a sophisticated modern jazz sound. Again, Elling layers his voice for additional harmonic drama. While the arrangement maintains the strength of the original melody and mystery, the transformation is revelatory, making you realize how durable the original is—in allowing such a successful expansion.
The transformation of a classic Wayne Shorter theme is less dramatic musically, but Elling finds other ways to make his new version stand on its own. Here, we get a suspenseful story from the pen of Elling and Pinsky (once a saxophonist and long interested in jazz, including collaborating with longtime Elling colleague, pianist Laurence Hobgood) about a mysterious neighbor who never leaves his apartment and hides every time the narrator comes home. There’s nothing unclear or overly fussy about this wonderful lyric, which perfectly matches the ache and suggestiveness of Shorter’s composition.
In many ways, the centerpiece of the Pérez/Elling collaboration is their “Beloved”, dedicated to Toni Morrison, whose great 1987 novel had that title. Using the alto saxophone of Miguel Zenón as a solo voice and as part of an ensemble, Pérez and Elling retell Morrison’s story in their own words and music. A mother escapes from slavery, crossing the Ohio River while “the blood-thirsty dogs gave raging chase”.
My hope began to fall / I couldn’t save us all
Where no one would hear us call / The river became a wall
When the lyric moves into a section of spoken-word narration, Pérez frames the music behind Elling dramatically, after which he shifts into several contrasting sections. The story/song winds and wanders, reaching its inevitable conclusion (“Someday I’ll see / my doves once again / with all of the heavenly host”). It is emotionally jarring and brilliant, using the language of jazz to create something not like much else in that’s genre’s 100 years of music.
“Song of the Rio Grande” is another major work from Pérez and Elling’s pen. The pianist’s introduction uses prepared elements on the piano strings that suggest music from Asia or Africa, even as the story unfolds of an immigrant coming into the United States from Mexico. It’s the story of the real-life Oscar and Valeria Martinez-Ramirez risking life to cross the river. But the lyric climaxes with “Of course, it’s not the river / It’s the people we’ve elected to lead us”, as Perez’s tick-tocking prepared piano part grows more dissonant and disjointed, keeping a steady rhythm even as it unwinds into something strange and alluring. Again, Elling creates color and emphasis with his overdubbed harmonies, but they are never too pretty to allow the lyrics to jar.
There are four additional tracks on which Elling sings only with Pérez’s piano. The duo tackle’s three tunes by multi-instrumentalist Django Bates and lyricist Sidsel Endresen, each of which works as a tender impressionist ballad. “Stage I” is a series of similes that evokes a mood of stasis quite appropriate to our COVID springtime, name-checking music by Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, and Laura Nyro. “Stages II, III” maintains the same gorgeous partnership between minimal but harmonically gorgeous piano and voice—as if Bill Evans and Tony Bennett had come back to the studio with freshly poetic material. The new Cuban folk song “Rabo de Nube” by Silvio Rodriguez is sung by Elling in Spanish, achieving a great balance between piano and voice alone.
There are two tracks on Secrets Are the Best Stories that are more straight-ahead in approach. The Pérez/Elling tune “Gratitude (for Robert Bly)” begins as a duet but soon invites in bass and percussion, allowing Pérez to play a lovely jazz solo. “Esperanto” uses a melody by Vince Mendoza to create a mid-tempo groover, with Pérez shifting over the Rhodes electric piano and Chico Pinheiro adding tasty electric guitar. It is the track that might sit most comfortably next to tracks from an early Kurt Elling record or alongside the work of a pure soul/jazz song singer like Gregory Porter. But even then, “Esperanto”, like the rest of Secrets, is imbued with a higher degree of ambition, poetically and musically.
With every word crafted and sung artfully and every note played with a degree of risk by real masters, Kurt Elling’s daring new Secrets Are the Best Stories is occasionally puffed with pretense but is also superb and singular.