Kurt Elling Talks New Album ‘Secrets Are The Best Stories’ & Collaborating With Pianist Danilo Pérez

Jazz vocalist Kurt Elling‘s craft goes way beyond singing. A deep thinker inspired by the prose and the preaching of great poets and philosophers, past and present, he has carved out his own rightful place among them with his heartfelt lyrics — poetry that often searches for answers to important universal questions — about life and death, love and hate, and right and wrong.

With a deep, warm, rich baritone voice and an astonishing four-octave range, Elling sings straight from his heart, drawing you into whatever story he is telling with an authentically emotional and compelling style. His musings both onstage and off reveal a man with genuine humility, compassion for others, and a spiritual proclivity, likely developed in his early years as a divinity student.

Set to release his latest album, Secrets Are The Best Stories, on April 3, Elling’s new work is a collaboration with Panamanian pianist and composer Danilo Pérez. Elling’s original lyrics are paired with several tunes penned by Pérez, and a few feature just the two of them, reflecting their intimate and creative communication.

Every song tells an engaging story, with several adapted from the work of renowned poets Franz Wright, Robert Bly, Francis E.W. Harper, and Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison. The stories are all different; some are esoteric, some are optimistic, and some are deeply introspective and reflective. And there are some that break new ground for Elling, delving deeply into social and political issues, boldly speaking out about critical topics like human rights and immigration. Pairing with Pérez, who is renowned not only for his music but for his worldwide activism, made for a perfect match.

The album also features tunes by jazz giants like saxophonist Wayne Shorter and bassist Jaco Pastorius, and a celebrated list of musicians: Clark Sommers on bass, Johnathan Blake on drums, Brazilian percussionist Rogério Boccato, Cuban percussionist Román Díaz, Chico Pinheiro on guitar and Miguel Zenón on alto sax.

With a career spanning more than 25 years, Elling has garnered 13 GRAMMY nominations and a win in 2009 for Best Jazz Vocal Album for Dedicated to You. And early in his career, in 1999, Elling did a six-year run with the National Recording Academy, first as a National Trustee, and later as a Vice Chair for two terms. During that time, he helped create and host the first two annual Recording Academy Salutes to Jazz. “There are all kinds of ways that the Recording Academy is really trying to serve the music community,” said Elling. “I was proud to be a part of it at the time.”

The Recording Academy caught up with Elling by telephone about what went into the making of the new album.

Did you start out with a particular theme or idea that you wanted to convey on this record?

No. The only theme that I had in mind when I started making the record was, “I wonder what Danilo and I will create together.” I had some number of lyrics in mind, but everything else was either inspired by Danilo—the way we interacted and the work that we were doing together.

How did your collaboration with Danilo Pérez come about?

Our relationship started many years ago. He would come to Chicago and hit the Jazz Showcase and I would come out to hear him. Then we’d go out and have coffee and talk about philosophy. When you’re out in the world making the scene at all these different international jazz festivals, you see each other time and again.

How long was the new record in the making?

It’s been a long time coming—six months of in-earnest writing and arranging and working together, well before we went into the studio. We did a couple of duet concerts to experiment on things and to feel out where it could go, and those were very inspiring occasions.

“Beloved” is a very powerful and disturbing piece. What inspired you to write it?

“Beloved” was written to honor Toni Morrison. It came about because Danilo and his wife were establishing a relationship with Toni Morrison, close to the end of her life. He wrote that composition for her, and then held it in trust, hoping that I would write a lyric for it, and that ended up working out very well. We had a very close communication about what specifically was driving that lyric, and where he wanted to put it. Toni Morrison was inspired to write “Beloved” from a series of abolitionist poems that were written in the 1850s by an African-American woman who was trying to rally people to the cause. To tell that story anew in our piece called “Beloved,” I adapt one specific piece of her poetry to fit the contours to tell that story anew.

“Gratitude” was dedicated to the great poet Robert Bly. Was it adapted from one of his poems?

Yes, but when I take a poem like that, now it has to fit the contours of the melody. There will not only be individual word and rhyming differences, but the story might change as well. I think of it as collaboration between the poet and me and the composer.

“The Song of the Rio Grande” is a powerful and wrenching tribute to Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his young daughter Valeria, Salvadoran migrants who died trying to cross the Rio Grande in Mexico to get to the U.S. What inspired you to about that?

I continue to struggle with what my appropriate response to the events of the world are. They’re always on my mind, but I’ve had to mature as a person and as a writer into a place where it’s time to start saying that stuff. We need to hold people accountable, because human beings are suffering and dying at this point because of the actions of those who represent us, whom we’ve elected. And that is a disgrace on every level.

We’re in a jam. We need to really find our way because the ideals that the Founders were trying to live up to, that generations of American leadership has at least tried to live up to, are all in very serious danger right now. I’m preoccupied with the way history reverberates and echoes, and I’m concerned with what my proper response to that echo is supposed to be.

How did Danilo create the amazing special effect sounds on that song?

He “treated” the piano—he took his beautiful Steinway at home in his own studio, and he got some paper clips and he put pieces of paper and some clothespins and nuts and bolts and screws on it. I think Danilo must have spent a couple of days trying to get exactly the kinds of sounds that he wanted in exactly the places that we wanted them.

You’ve been steadily creating your art for decades. What is it that inspires you to keep going and have any of those reasons changed over the years?

I think I’m less interested in fame for its own sake. When I was young, I was just busting to get out to make a mark for my ego’s sake. Now, it’s about gratitude. My goal every night is to give the highest quality performance that I can, and to be faithful to the quality of the music that’s within me to make.

Do you think your writing, in general, will be taking on more about world events?

It’s not going to be a super hard right or left turn. It’s just that my preoccupations are different. I’m not preoccupied with finding romantic love these days. I’m preoccupied with the future of what kind of world my kids and everybody’s kids are going to live in. And I’m concerned to make, produce and sing compositions and musical events that are for the highest good.