Lighting the Beacon

JazzTimes May 2020 coverIn their first recorded collaboration, KURT ELLING and DANILO PÉREZ make music that reaches for a higher artistic and moral standard.

Picking at his weight-conscious lunch of Brussels sprouts, blistered shishito peppers, and wine at an Italian place near his Upper West Side Manhattan home, Kurt Elling recalls a favorite bit about body image from the comedian Tom Papa, whose Netflix special he has just watched.

“Look at you…you’re doing great!” he intones, mimicking Papa’s sing-song delivery with uncanny accuracy.

“You’re a little chubby… we’re all a little chubby. You’re doing great! So you’re not built like an Olympic athlete. You’re not an Olympic athlete.” He laughs uproariously.

Then, more seriously, reflecting on how self-critical Americans tend to be, he adds, “We’ve been sold a bill of goods, man! Everything that makes this economy run is based upon fear and self-judgment, and venal declarations, man, and exploitation… Everything but this record!” he hastens to add with a smile.

“A shining beacon of integrity?” I suggest.

“That’s right. If you’re gonna buy one record this year…”

The record in question is Elling’s newest, Secrets Are the Best Stories (Edition), a duo project with Danilo Pérez, the much-admired Panamanian pianist, composer, and 12-year veteran of the Wayne Shorter Quartet. The record also features Elling’s longtime bassist Clark Sommers, percussionist Rogério Boccato, drummer Johnathan Blake, and guest appearances by guitarist Chico Pinheiro, alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón, and Cuban percussion master Román Díaz.

There is more than one irony, however, in Elling – who doesn’t appear to have an inch of fat on his 52-year-old body – joking about self-criticism. Despite being at the crest of a 25-year career, during which he has been called “the standout male jazz vocalist of our time” by the New York Times, among many other awards and accolades, he is modest about his achievements and self-critical to a fault. At one point in our conversation he blurts out, “Man, I sure wish I could sing better.” To paraphrase what an anonymous music publisher once said about Irving Berlin: “It must be hell being him. The guy’s his own toughest competition.”

Elling has always aimed high, intellectually and musically. A former divinity student at the University of Chicago, he has, over the years, followed in the footsteps of his singing idols, men like Mark Murphy and Jon Hendricks, to earn his reputation as the male jazz vocalist who most aggressively pushes the envelope. It’s not just his sonorous four-octave baritone and keen improvisational skills; he also writes poetic, muscular vocalese lyrics to challenging solos by the likes of Wayne Shorter, Charlie Haden, and Jaco Pastorius.

Continuing a line of inquiry that dominated his 2018 Sony release The Questions, Elling’s philosophical inclinations and his concern for social injustice are on full display in Secrets. One example is the track “Song of the Rio Grande,” dedicated to the Salvadoran father and daughter who died in 2019 trying to cross that river to seek a better life in the United States. Elling’s lyric to this song, which began life as the title cut from Pérez’s 2008 album Across the Crystal Sea (music by Claus Ogerman), may be the most frankly political statement of his career.

“Of course, it’s not the river / It’s the people we’ve elected to lead us / Who make the walls and send the armored wagons for the ones who would join us / While billionaires recline upon divans upholstered in the skins of slaughter / And feast upon the children we should think of as our only sons and daughters / America, you’ve lost your heart / And it’s no excuse / just being scared or blind / America, you’ve lost your mind.”

ELLING AND PÉREZ FIRST MET in the early ’90s. Elling would attend Pérez’s gigs at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago whenever he appeared there. “After the show we would go out and have a hang,” Pérez told me by phone from his home in Boston. “We would talk about philosophy, me and him and [Elling’s former pianist/arranger] Laurence Hobgood.” But it was only last year, when the pair collaborated during a tribute to Boston jazz impresario Fred Taylor, that they tried playing together. “And immediately after, we both said to each other, ‘Man, that felt so organic. Let’s do something together.'”

Both men feel a responsibility to use their art to try to repair the world. Elling’s father, descended from God-fearing German immigrants who settled in Minnesota in the middle of the 19th century, was a Lutheran church organist and kapellmeister. “Even though my people weren’t in Germany in the Nazi era, thank God,” he says, “it doesn’t really matter whether my specific people were there. What matters is that another human being was doing that, and that person is related to me. And I’m not stopping them today. The refugees who drowned – how are we not related to them?”

Pérez, who emigrated to the U.S. as a boy, is equally passionate about the moral responsibility of artists. The collaboration with Elling reinforced his sense of responsibility “to move humanity in a more positive direction,” he says. “We wanted to do an album that was contemplative about the state of the world.” It’s only one of his efforts to further international understanding. His next album will be with the Global Messengers, an international group he formed out of alumni of his Berklee Global Jazz Institute. In all of his projects, his goal is to promote “music as a borderless and multidimensional bridge between all people,” according to his website.

Elling sometimes gets political on stage but is always looking for the right approach. “I’m aware that’s not what people have come out for. Some of them have come out to forget that stuff.” Other fans come, in part, “because they trust me to say things in the right way, to show that I’m not ignoring it. But I couch it in such a way that it’s not aggressive. It’s gonna be more difficult now, because the material on this record is more pointed.”

When I ask if he has any hesitation about taking on the Trump administration so directly, he says, “Danilo and I are going to be doing that Rio Grande song, and I want where I stand to be out there, because people are dying. It’s incumbent upon me to say the real thing. That doesn’t mean I’m gonna blow the whole night as a suddenly political artist. It just means that I’m a guy walking around who gives a shit.

“I wish I could have done more than write a fucking song lyric about it. Is that the best I can do? Apparently, it is,” he reflects. “It’s an ongoing process of figuring out what I’m supposed to use this voice for. I’ve got two kids; I want to know, is the world gonna survive? People are hurting everyplace, all the time. And here in America, we’re worried sick over our very democracy. And we thought it was bad when George W. Bush was in power… He has self-respect and maybe some misguided ideas. But this other guy’s a fucking moral void…”

Elling continues on in this vein, describing the current administration as having “a loathsome disregard for any kind of charitable impulse, any kind of compassion for someone he hasn’t met, any kind of concern for a child… They don’t give a shit. The power and money they’ve been corrupted by is so enthralling to them… So what am I supposed to sing? What’s a jazz singer supposed to do? ‘My Funny Valentine’? Fuck off!”

WHAT’S A JAZZ SINGER SUPPOSED TO DO? For Elling, the question is more than political: he feels a responsibility to the music to push the state of the art forward. He’s keenly aware of his talents as a musician, but also his limitations. “I love being a jazz singer,” he says. “I’m proud of it. That’s the way I think of myself. I feel an obligation to the great singers who preceded me. I want to sing so they’re proud of me.

“I think my gifts are that I am somewhat easy in front of an audience. That I intuitively know how to structure a performance for audiences. That I can sing in tune most of the time. And that, once in a while, I can write something in a lyric that’s pretty good. I’m 52 – I’d better be writing something worth hearing now, otherwise … when’s it gonna come around?

“But I sure wish I could sing better. Really better. If I could do what Bobby McFerrin does and know that much stuff! The intonation, the chordal information that he masters. Or if I could sing a bebop line like Jon [Hendricks] used to sing … oh my God! And it’s just because I haven’t really done the homework. I haven’t done enough to really master it yet. It’s my own fault. And I’ll never be able to sing the blues like Joe Williams; it just won’t happen. It’s too late. I would have had to have a different childhood [laughs]. The high point of my blues career was that I got to sing backup for Buddy Guy at the White House – full stop. That’s the blues. A good man knows his limitations.”

Elling is concerned for the future of the kind of forward-leaning jazz singing in which he specializes. “I have a goal in the next 10 years: to help plant a bunch of saplings among the male jazz singing population. There should be five or six guys chasing me right now who scare the shit out of me. And I’m not scared! So. Anybody wants to scare me, I will help you scare me. I will engage you. We need you. The music needs you.”

He does want to tip his hat to some of the younger singers who are following in the tradition. “Just off the top of my head, to my friend Gregory Porter; to JD Walter; to Allan Harris, God bless him. All right, who else? John Pizzarelli, obviously; what a hero that guy is. Also, Anthony Strong in London. A young guy, musically talented; he’s on the right road.”

ELLING AND PÉREZ CAN’T SAY ENOUGH about the experience of working with each other. “Danilo’s level of musicianship is particularly clear on this record,” Elling says. “His abilities are exposed. And he challenged the shit out of me! When was the last time I sang a bespoke clave in 13? How about never?” he laughs. He was referring to the song “Beloved (for Toni Morrison),” with its unusual clave beat.

“And he was so encouraging to me. He was like [imitating Pérez’s Panamanian accent] ‘No, man, you gonna get it!’ I’d say, ‘No, man, I don’t have it!’ And he’d say, ‘You don’t have it today, but you gonna get it. I love you, man; it’s gonna be great.'”

Although they chose the songs and wrote the lyrics in advance, Pérez says, he and Elling prepared very little before the recording session. Pérez improvised many of his parts in the moment, inspired by Elling’s lyrics. “Kurt has such freedom with language,” Pérez says, “it’s like he creates a dance partner for me with his lyrics.”

Pérez’s “Beloved,” inspired by the Nobel Prize-winning writer Morrison’s blockbuster novel about the trauma of slavery, began as a composition for piano. Daunted by the task of writing a lyric based on such a complex and dark book, Elling was initially at a loss until Pérez suggested a text to Kurt: an 1857 work by the Abolitionist poet Frances Ellen Watkins Harper about a slave mother escaping with her four children. The poem, reportedly, was important source material for the novelist.

“Once I heard the power of his words, it changed the way I played it,” Pérez says. “I like to play with the idea of bar lines, which is something we do with Wayne; he got it from Miles.” The singer and pianist adopted a rubato feel that captures the rhythms of speech, requiring the musicians to be in the moment and fully responsive to the singer and the lyrics. “When he sang it, it was easy for me to hear the spaces and where they belong.”

It’s not only Elling’s lyrics that inspire Pérez; it’s also the sound of his voice. “His sound makes me hear colors,” Pérez says. “His connection as a storyteller with the words and the rhymes are a total inspiration for me. You know, to go out of your comfort zone, like we do with Wayne, takes a lot of courage. I wanted to give Kurt a taste of what it’s like to be in Wayne’s quartet, to work with that feeling of opening doors. I’m grateful he had the courage to do that.”

Secrets also includes “A Certain Continuum,” Elling’s lyric to Jaco Pastorius’ famed “Continuum,” and “Esperanto,” based on composer/arranger Vince Mendoza’s “Esperança.” “Jaco’s stuff is undersung,” Elling says. “The best instrumentalists, like Jaco, are singing when they play. When I hear Dexter Gordon in full flight, for example, man, I think he’s the greatest singer who ever lived. Man, I wish I could sing like that. When I write a lyric to one of Dexter’s solos [as he did with “Body and Soul” from Gordon’s Homecoming: Live at the Village Vanguard album], then I can sing like Dexter; I can at least approximate it.” Speaking of Mendoza, Elling says, “And Vince, man … if I could afford him, I’d have him arrange everything I do.”

Elling offers effusive praise for all the musicians on the record, singling out Pinheiro (on “Esperanto”) and Zenón (“Beloved”). “Chico is a very selfless musician,” Elling said. “Every room he walks into, he asks, how can I serve? And he delivers, too. I think that was the first take, and we were done. That brother deserves a medal.” Of Zenón, Elling said, “On the scale of intense MFs, he’s way over here! He’s a stallion, one of the top three guys in any platform. If he calls me for anything, the answer is ‘Yes, it will be an honor.'”

IF ELLING’S STANDARDS ARE sometimes impossibly high, his interest, ultimately, is in creating something deathless. His greatest admiration is for poets. “All of my lyrics have happened because there was an existing melody of some kind. Whereas, poetry stands alone in silence. Auden or Rumi or Rilke – we just see the words, and our life is changed! The words overrule everything and, in Rilke’s words, ‘you must change your life.'”

That’s the stuff that Elling wants to devote his life to. “It’s got nothing to do with commerce,” he says. “That’s what we’re here for. To play the stuff that you play, and say, what else could I possibly play? What choice did Pres have? And for the world to come after him like that! And here I sit in my privileged place in the Upper West Side, doing half the work that he did as a musician. All I can do is try to figure it out… Do it because you’ve fallen in love with it and don’t have any choice. There’s enough bullshit happening.”