Kurt Elling on Working with Danilo Pérez, Politics and Recording with an Indie Label

Kurt Elling’s work as a vocalist and poet-cum-lyricist always has exerted depth; vocal frippery isn’t his style. So, it comes as a surprise that he digs even deeper into eloquence on Secrets Are The Best Stories, a new disc set for release on April 3.

The album – Elling’s first collaboration with pianist Danilo Pérez – tackles contemporary social crises and pairs the Grammy-winning talents with a raft of first-call performers, including altoist Miguel Zenón and drummer Johnathan Blake. “Song Of The Rio Grande (For Oscar And Valeria Martínez-Ramírez),” which premieres below, contains many of the elements that mark the project overall: Pérez’s vibrant harmonic vision, Elling’s trenchant lyrics, and the duo’s easy rapport in the studio. (While many of the album’s tracks feature other players, Elling and Pérez will tour the album as a duo this spring and summer.)

In a recent phone call with DownBeat, the vocalist discussed the new album, why an indie-jazz label serves him best at this point in his career and the pressures that socially aware artists might face today.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

The title of your new album, Secrets Are The Best Stories, is thought-provoking. What does it mean to you?

First, that listening very deeply is the basis of any creative response to life. It seems to me that if I were conscious all the time as an individual, that I would notice all the poems and songs that are available in each moment. That’s one thing. The second is that the truth seems to be playing a game of hide-and-seek these days. There are competing narratives for reality in a way that is much more dangerous and profound than in past years. The truth among the narratives – that’s another form of secrecy.

Can you talk about “Song Of The Rio Grande (For Oscar And Valeria Martínez-Ramírez)” and what statement it’s making?

Let’s say that these lyrics grew out of compassion and a broken heart. Compassion for the people who are suffering, and a broken heart for our country, for what we’re having to endure as citizens at this point. And what we’re going to have to do to reclaim – I don’t even know what to call it – a sense of optimism, I guess. That would be a place to start.

Do you see jazz musicians as playing a role in raising awareness and helping to heal the social issues you’re addressing on this record?

That’s for each musician to say for themselves, you know, what their response [to social issues] is going to be. In my own case, it’s taken me a little bit of time. Perhaps I should have been doing this kind of work all along. I don’t know. There’s always been injustice. There’s always been suffering. And there have always been people on the receiving end. I should have been on their side sooner.

There seem to be many jazz musicians who are speaking out about social issues. Have you observed this?

I have noticed that several of my colleagues are at least titling compositions and records in a way that is suggestive of a response to this moment in time. Does it surprise me that this is happening? No. It would surprise me if it weren’t happening, because [musicians] are human beings, and the way that we communicate in the world is primarily through our music. And as a lyricist, I struggle with how pointedly to make my case, to express my viewpoint.

This will continue to be something that I grapple with, because people aren’t paying money to have me make them uncomfortable in a concert setting. But in this day and age, I definitely want to make clear what I stand for, and certainly what I stand against. I owe [my audience] the honesty of the moment. But it’s a very, very large issue that needs balance on any given night. Nobody has paid money for a political speech – they’ve paid, in many cases, to leave that behind.

Danilo Pérez seems like a perfect partner for this kind of a project – not just for his skill as a composer and pianist, but for his social awareness. How did the collaboration come about?

Danilo and I have been circulating around one another for quite a while, and it was finally time for me to reach out. Thankfully, he was amenable. He was extremely kind to offer up so many compositions and arrangements of his own, and he was very enthusiastic about my writing lyrics. We talked about some different concepts, and in some cases, he was very specific about the emotional story he wanted to convey, as in the composition “Beloved (For Toni Morrison).” I was able to complete my job as a lyricist [to his music] much more quickly because he had such a specific plan. In other cases, as with our composition “Gratitude (For Robert Bly),” I had to find out on my own what that composition was going to be about.

Most of your previous albums have appeared on labels like Blue Note and Concord. Why the switch to an indie label like Edition Records?

At this point [in my career], I’ve been out there for 25 years, and the things that are important to me from a record label now are not the same things that they were. I’m not a breaking artist, and while I welcome somebody else’s imprimatur, I don’t need it in the same way. That gives me the freedom to say, “Can I finally, please, have the album covers that I want and 50 percent of the profits when I make the record?” Nobody’s ever been breathing down my neck about the music – and I hope that I’ll continue to have that freedom. But this is me. What I’m here to do is the stuff that I’m doing.