Stirring Secrets – A rumination on Secrets Are the Best Stories by Ted C. Fishman

Secrets stir tension. Secrets make us insiders when we have them, and outsiders when we don’t. Both are states of alienation, separating us from those on the other side of the secret. But secrets also make us pay attention. Think of the best stories you know. Nearly every great novel, film, play or family myth is somehow a mystery. We pay heed when we feel uneasy, when the characters grasp for connections, or when the story’s end may yet give victory to the darkest threat. Read Dickens, Twain, Fitzgerald — or Toni Morrison, to whom Kurt Elling pays homage in his new album SECRETS ARE THE BEST STORIES. In it, Elling reveals a new collaborative energy with pianist / composer Danilo Pérez. Together the pair have composed a collection of poetry and music that swims in the realm of secrets and of alienation.

At first blush, the sadder, angrier cuts on SECRETS may feel out of step with Elling the energetic touring entertainer … and Elling is a daring performer. In live concerts, he connects to audiences as musician, poet and, dare it be said, spiritual guide and healer. He is our friend, and more. In the tent of Kurt Elling audiences become brothers and sisters — a kind of family (at least, for 90 minutes at a time). That family wants to laugh and play. But it wants mysteries, too. Kurt Elling learned long ago to keep and share mysterious secrets on the stage, a trait honed with his playful jazz mentors in Chicago and those game enough to collaborate with him ever since. To be sure, the improvisational impulse that is at the heart of jazz is that of excavating buried secrets. These are usually hidden even from the performer until the moment they are sonically revealed. With Elling, these “reveals” astonish and delight.

Start with the sound. Kurt Elling bedazzles with one of the most multi-hued male voices in the jazz multiverse, alternately honeyed, gritty, playful and haunting. Critic Lauren Bush, reviewing the February 2020 London performance of Elling’s original staged “radio play” THE BIG BLIND, noted that “Elling’s voice [was] powerful, playful and flawless — as usual.” And so it is here. Yet, Elling has always pushed the boundaries of what’s possible vocally. His scatting can attack with long runs of the beautifully, sometimes brutally weird. Such scatting is often delivered in a supersonic register, so physically exerting that Elling’s face, all kabuki red, becomes a powerful gusher of secrets. In performance the singer is so often surprised by the invention that he himself laughs at the shock of it.

But this time, Kurt Elling directs his sound at revelations that are no laughing matter. Elling the lyricist has always had a gift for surprise. His verse can have a mystical bent where an unlikely connection or seeming non sequitur works as glue. Take Esperanto, a song Elling first recorded in 1999 that returns on SECRETS. In this new treatment, Elling and his collaborators uncloak the Neruda-inspired lyric atop the Vince Mendoza composition in a fresh way. When Elling sings “Holy food/Holy breathing — Holy light interweaving — Holy night/ Holy handwrite — Holy flight /Holy insight”, he connects and surprises all at once.

Kurt Elling has a gift for sadder story lyrics too, and on SECRETS they can be both chilling and heartbreaking. Stays — Elling’s lyrics and Wayne Shorter’s music — tells with sharp concision the story of a weary touring musician and his repeated near-encounters with an elderly neighbor who warily peeks out his apartment door, and who then hides in silence, each time the artist returns home. Why does the old man secret himself away from the singer? Elling and Pérez evoke an alienation that forecloses personal connections and empathy until at last a tragedy forces the man’s terrible story into the open. With a full narrative arc, this relatively short song nevertheless moves backward and forward in time to reveal the inescapable echoes of history.

The compositions on SECRETS show that Elling and Pérez are not in the mood to merely swing or entertain. In Song of The Rio Grande, they mourn the deaths of migrants lost as pawns to political gamesmanship. Without resorting to name-calling, the two artists rail against the basely tribal and petty impulses that mark our times. But the anger expressed here aims to urge each of us to reckon with our own inner brutes and to see the faces of our own family members among those of the victims.

Beloved (for Toni Morrison), telescopes and transforms the story of its famous namesake character, evoking the terror of being pursued. Elling’s voice, a mix of horn-like complaint and fearful vibrato, captures the chill of the frozen killing ground. When he recites as sprechstimme a passage excerpted from an 1850 poem by abolitionist Frances Harper over Pérez’s rushing-rapids piano run, we feel the mad river too. Elling’s anger, however, is for now and not for long ago tribulation. Through Harper, he’s calling on us in this time to protect the “hapless ones from their darkly gathering fate.”

There is some relief and encouragement, too. Elling’s new lyric for the Jaco Pastorious composition A Certain Continuum reminds us that, “there’s a ribbon / in the river / that is running through your heart / Restart / Be your own work of art”. Perhaps paradoxically for Elling “the friend,” however, most of the SECRETS revealed in this collection offer little such comfort. Instead the stories are probing and propulsive, asking whether we really know who we are and whether we are the people we mean to be. This isn’t “edgy” music, which so often tilts internal and self-gratifying. This is music with an edge. These songs are swords. Kurt Elling’s vocal pathos is both siren and confession — a ringing out, and a wringing out, of souls.

Charles Mingus once told Nat Hentoff that “I’m trying to play the truth of what I am. The reason it’s difficult is because I am changing all the time.” Which is to say, as Hentoff explains, how one lives as a person becomes the impetus for what one plays as a musician. If the journey from Elling’s ebullient 1999 recording of Esperanto on LIVE AT THE GREEN MILL to his more contemplative 2020 version on SECRETS maps the truth of who he is now, then we know this is the music Kurt Elling and Danilo Pérez need to play now. If they’re angry, so be it. They’re letting their secrets, and our secrets, out.

What else can they do?

—Liner notes for Secrets Are the Best Stories (Edition Records, 2020)

Ted Fishman is the best-selling author of China, Inc. and Shock of Grey. Fishman’s essays appear in The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Esquire, USA Today, GQ and The Times of London.