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Since the release of his 1995 debut recording, Close Your Eyes, vocalist and lyricist Kurt Elling has created as moving, compelling and artistically rich a body of work as anyone in jazz. And as evidenced by the passionate, compelling music and messages on Secrets Are the Best Stories, a thrilling collaboration with pianist Danilo Pérez, his energy and inventiveness show no sign of flagging.
Elling’s way with words tends to dominate many of the conversations about him, and that’s understandable. He can certainly be blunt, as in “Song of the Rio Grande (for Oscar and Valeria Martinez-Ramirez),” in which he intones, “America, you’ve lost your heart/It’s no excuse being scared or blind.” But he’s also capable of generating impressively evocative imagery, as in the opening lines of “Gratitude (for Robert Bly)”: “Just as sunlight casts a shadow/The first shade of another day/Interrupted in his sleep/Still in half a dream.”
At the same time, Elling’s singing — which eschews ostentatious effects in favor of alternately tender or tempestuous interpretations that are always put at the service of the song — elevates every syllable. Moreover, his creative generosity consistently inspires those with whom he partners, including Pérez, whose playing has seldom sounded more emotional.
Pérez’s compositional skills are on full display throughout “Beloved (for Toni Morrison),” which encompasses tender chording and a driving power matched by bassist Clark Sommers, drummer Johnathan Blake and saxophonist Miguel Zenón. And the stamp the pianist puts on melodies penned by Jaco Pastorius (“A Certain Continuum”), Wayne Shorter (“Stays”) and Silvio Rodríguez (“Rabo de Nube”) are equally memorable.
The same can be said of Elling. A quarter century down the line, he’s no longer a secret. But the latest chapter of his story will leave listeners eager for the next one. — Michael Roberts
Featured photo by Anna Webber.