Review: Speaking To All of Us

Any album and/or concert Kurt Elling presents/creates is an adventure.  The vocalist, songwriter, and poet came out of Chicago 25 years ago singing jazz, cognizant of the music’s history in that city and this country, melding poetry with music, telling stories.  Sometimes those stories were based in the blues, other times in the vocalese style of Jon Hendricks and Eddie Jefferson, and there were songs of a political nature.  Most recently, he teamed up with Branford Marsalis for a pair of albums on Okeh Records, 2016’s Upward Spiral with Marsalis’s Quartet and the other under his own name The Questions (2018).

Late last year, the vocalist signed with Great Britain’s Edition Records – his debut album for the label, Secrets Are The Best Stories, is credited to Kurt Elling, featuring Danilo Pérez. The fascinating program is a collection of melodies by the pianist Pérez and others, including the opening two tracks composed by Jaco Pastorius plus pieces from Wayne Shorter, Vince Mendoza, and two tracks composed by vocalist Sidsel Endresen with music by Django Bates.  The program is one of the most intimate and least orchestrated of Elling’s oeuvre, with Pérez on 10 of the 11 tracks; bassist Clark Sommers appears on five and percussionist Rogério Boccato on four (Johnathan Blake, Jr. plays on two songs while alto saxophonists Miguel Zenón, guitarist Chico Pinheiro, and percussionist Romån Dîaz each appear on one).

The intimacy can be right from the onset: The Fanfold Hawk (for Franz Wright)” utilizes a Pastorius melody, multi-tracked voices, and Sommers’ expressive bass to tell its story and leads directly into A Certain Continuum (based on the late bassist’s Continuum) – on this track, Pérez, Blake, Jr., and Dîaz join Sommers to create a chugging rhythm.  The lengthy piano solo is quite handsome. Pérez wrote the music for Gratitude (for Robert Bly), the second song dedicated to an American poet.  The piano and voice are so excellently paired and, when Sommers and Bocato enter, the music moves away into an airy Latin groove.

But the three songs that truly stand out are Beloved (for Toni Morrison), Song of the Rio Grande (for Oscar and Valerie Martinez-Ramirez), and Rabo de Nube.  The first track is not only the longest on the program (9:32) but features the largest ensemble.  Zenón’s keening alto saxophone moves around Elling’s voice then echoes the vocal in the fast-paced middle section.  Blake, Jr., Boccato, and Sommers raise the intensity beneath the hard-edged piano.  The final tune mentioned is composed by Cuban folk singer Silvio Rodríguez and translates to Tail of the Tornado. Yet, Elling and Pérez handle this song about a great wind coming to clean away sadnesses and ugliness, leaving behind hope.

As for Song of the Rio Grande, listen and watch below knowing that the song is dedicated to the father and his daughter who died crossing the river from Mexico to the United States.  Just Elling’s multi-tracked voice and the amazing sounds of the prepared piano – fascinating lyrics and emotionally powerful music.

Secrets Are The Best Stories is an amazing musical and lyrical journey.  Built upon the words and dramatic vocals of Kurt Elling and the powerful, lyrical, musicianship of Danilo Pérez, this music will resonate inside you, asking you to listen and take action, even as the world hunkers down in isolation. The power of music and the power of the pen may yet turn the world towards empathy.