Review: Vocalist Kurt Elling Teams With Pianist Danilo Pérez for ‘Secrets Are The Best Stories’

Renowned vocalist Kurt Elling collaborates with acclaimed pianist Danilo Pérez and a few other musicians on select tracks for Secrets Are The Best Stories. Elling adds lyrics to compositions by Wayne Shorter, Jaco Pastorious, visionary composer/arranger Vince Mendoza and Pérez. Along with these narratives, Elling adapts the works of contemporary poets Franz Wright and Robert Bly, the 19th-century abolitionist poet Frances E. W. Harper and Nobel-winning author Toni Morrison.

The title is gleaned from one of his daughter’s childhood friends, whose naïve wisdom recognized the deeper beauty in games of hide-and-seek. The title indicates that Elling is searching to unearth the hidden. As such, the album becomes a platform for Elling’s protest voice that he uses eloquently and elegantly to discourse on human rights, immigration and climate change. His previous album The Questions explored these issues too. Elling says, “Danilo and I share many of the same concerns and anxieties about where the world is today. The album is cri de coeur.”

Renowned for his singular combination of robust swing and poetic insight, Elling has secured his place among the world’s foremost jazz vocalists. Declared “the standout male vocalist of our time” by The New York Times, Elling has garnered unprecedented accolades, including a fourteen-year run atop the DownBeat Critics Poll, a dozen Grammy nominations, and eight Jazz Journalists Association awards for “Male Singer of the Year.” His voice is instantly recognizable, embracing listeners with his warm, rich baritone and navigating the full span of his four-octave range as a virtuoso instrumentalist and a compelling storyteller. Whether transforming timeless standards or crafting his own enthralling originals, Elling balances elegant lyricism and technical mastery with and keen observations into the human condition. 

Earlier in his career, he brought wry humor and a more conventional jazz vocal style. Now over more recent recordings, he takes a more improvisational approach, the beauty of which lies in its unpredictability as these are tunes often without choruses or even repeated lyrical phrases, a term known as vocalese, the writing and performing of words over improvised jazz solos. Advancing the innovations made by pioneers like Eddie Jefferson, King Pleasure and Jon Hendricks, Elling has set his own lyrics to the solos of jazz giants as he does here while incorporating work famous writers and poets. In simple terms, think of Elling as a melding of Johnny Hartman (voice) and the jazz-poet Ken Nordine (lyrical approach) with an edgier, more progressive style.

Consider these tracks- “The Fanfold Hawk (for Franz Wright)” and “Continuum” (Pastorious/Elling), “Stays” (Shorter/Elling/Robert Pinsky), and several by Pérez, mostly notably “Beloved (for Toni Morrison) and “Song of the Rio Grande (for Oscar and Valeria Martinez-Ramirez),” the latter of which has a video. Elling wants to convey empathy, expressing – “I start from the heart. And my heart goes to compassion.”

Elling and Pérez did not go it alone. Elling’s longtime bassist Clark Sommers graces six tracks, in demand drummer Johnathan Blake on two and Brazilian percussionist Rogerio Boccato on four. Special guests include alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón, guitarist Chico Pinheiro, and Román Díaz, a revered elder statesman of Cuban percussion.

Most will likely associate Pérez with the Wayne Shorter Quartet, which he joined in 2010 with John Patitucci and Brian Blade. The 2018 Emanon from the Wayne Shorter Quartet won a Grammy® in the category of Best Jazz Instrumental album in 2019 and is an album that we covered in-depth on these pages. For several years Pérez has also been touring with his trio – featuring Ben Street and Adam Cruz – and with Children of the Light, a collaboration with fellow Wayne Shorter Quartet members John Patitucci and Brian Blade. As a composer, Pérez has been commissioned by The Lincoln Center, Chicago Jazz Festival, and Imani Winds Quintet, among others.

This collaboration delivers a deep, singular message poetically, beautifully, and expressively.