Secrets Are The Best Stories review: A career high point for Kurt Elling

I’ve been under the spell of Elling since I first heard him – there’s such rich calmness, such beautifully measured passion in his voice. But it’s also about the things he says and the way he goes about putting music to words; that’s right music to words – rather than the other way around.

Kurt Elling is, as far as I’m concerned (and I know I’m not alone here) the great jazz singer of his generation – the great male voice in jazz. I think of when Sinatra would try to push himself out into somewhere interesting – Watertown or even those bonkers bits on Trilogy and I imagine they were some early breadcrumbs for Elling. But add the inventiveness of Bobby McFerrin at his early, searing best. Maybe Elling is to jazz what Scott Walker was to his own brand of baroque experimental music.

At any rate, Elling just keeps finding new ways to thrill and surprise. I thought I’d peaked with his music when I finally got the chance to see him live. There, in that setting, you get all the interesting stuff – poems put to music, old instrumental standards suddenly with a lyric to support and reinvent them – but you also get Elling just singing the snot out of a classic like Nature Boy.

But across the last half decade he has continued to challenge and provoke – and most importantly to stretch himself and his audience.

This is never easy listening, despite that beautiful timbre that sits in and all around his voice. And always.

Vocally he is so easy to drift with – but then the songs he makes…they flit and dart, they hover, then disappear. They reappear as musical bunting. Writ large. Both weird and wonderful.

Here, Elling is in glorious storyteller mode, the pianist Danilo Pérez is the musical director, the overseer of the sound, the co-pilot for this journey. There are other great players that sit and wait and add colour when needed (particularly the brilliant Johnathan Blake on drums with percussionists Román Díaz and Rogério Boccato, as well as regular bassist Clark Sommers) but often your ear is filled with sounds that Pérez and Elling paint the sky of each song with – fresh worlds of colour each and every time.

Sometimes it’s overt in the dedication of the song – Elling paying tribute to Toni Morrison on a song called Beloved (name for a Morrison novel), other times you listen in on the lyrics to hear the tribute. Another famous Morrison (Van the Man) is evoked across Stage 1 – first with the mention of Astral Weeks, later with the song title The Way Young Lovers Do.

But my favourite tone-poem here is the slow-building, meticulous Song of the Rio Grande. As it builds, beneath tinkering percussion and tinkling ivories we get to Elling’s droned-chant, “America you’ve lost your heart” – and “American you’ve lost your mind.” He adds, in the most potent aside, “And it’s no excuse just being scared or blind.” What a nub. That’s the rub right there.

Philosophy, theology and Latin jazz all combine and swirl as Kurt Elling makes new poems from old songs or contemplates old dilemmas in new and fascinating ways. Often it’s both at the very same time.

He remains out in the lead – charging forward with each album, supported deeply by brilliant musicians that share and help to serve the vision.

Secrets Are The Best Stories is a career high point for Kurt Elling. And sure, it’s one of several. But I would still hope that’s really saying something. Kurt sure is. Which is why I love this record so very much.