By John McDonough | Published May 2020
Secrets Are The Best Stories has a little secret of its own. Do Kurt Elling’s opaquely metaphysical lyrics actually mean anything? Combined with the music of Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter and collaborator/pianist Danilo Pérez, the result is one of his more challenging projects.
Audiences find Elling’s dry, powdery baritone warm and welcoming at first. Then, just as they’re getting comfortable, he’ll bite them with a sharp twist of tartness; the seductive voice hides elusive ambiguities. “The Fanfold Hawk (For Franz Wright)” is a Pastorius line for voice and bass whose vocalese combines a bird metaphor with self-help motivation. Even if it never comes to a point, the music is impressive, in part because it frames the virtuosity of Elling’s sound so openly. But soon, listeners are pulled into philosophical questions without answers, made more puzzling by the knotty musical settings, which Elling and Pérez navigate with silky skill.
Elling’s breathy interior monologue on “Stages II, III” floats on Pérez’s pools of calm chords. On “Beloved,” they move like shadows of each other, roaming the scales with an elusive logic that seems theirs alone. But voice and music converge on pitches and phrases that remind listeners how exactly the musical specifications are laid out. Elling sings lines that seem impossible. Dystopian dissonance and nightmarish musical images feed dense metaphors wrapped in poetic camouflage. The passion is earnest and pitch perfect. Now, if only I understood exactly what he was singing about.
Secrets Are The Best Stories: The Fanfold Hawk (For Franz Wright); A Certain Continuum; Stays; Gratitude (For Robert Bly); Stage I; Beloved (For Toni Morrison); Stages II, III; Song Of The Rio Grande (For Oscar And Valeria Martinez-Ramirez); Rabo De Nube; Esperanto; Epílogo. (46:53)
Personnel: Kurt Elling, vocals; Danilo Pérez, piano; Miguel Zenón (6), alto saxophone; Chico Pinheiro (10), guitar; Clark Sommers, bass; Jonathan Blake (2, 6), drums; Rogerio Boccato (3, 4, 6, 10), Román Diaz (2), percussion.