The not-so-secret stories of Kurt Elling

Kurt Elling has been described as combining “authenticity with stunning originality” by The Wall Street Journal, “the closest jazz will ever get to having its own saint” by the Toronto Star, and “the standout male vocalist of our time” by The New York Times.

The Washington Post says, “Since the mid-1990s, no singer in jazz has been as daring, dynamic or interesting as Kurt Elling.”

He’s a Grammy winner and multiple-time nominee, and he’s been lauded and awarded by music fans and critics alike. DownBeat‘s critics poll might as well change the name of their Male Vocalist of the Year title to the Kurt Elling Award, because he’s pretty well owned it since 2000. Elling’s is the voice of unmitigated creativity, adventure, soul and generosity.

He joined us over the phone to chat about his new collaboration Secrets Are the Best Stories and to let us in on a few of his own secrets about his creative process.

You’ve had a long and successful relationship with various individuals including Laurence Hobgood, and I’ve noticed recently there have been some changes in some of the personnel. You’ve collaborated with Branford Marsalis on a beautiful record, The Questionsand you have a new project coming up with Danilo Pérez. What do these new collaborations do for you musically and creatively?

Every time you engage another musician, you’re starting a conversation. You’re starting with a level of curiosity and fascination. Sometimes you’re meeting with a sense of trepidation because that person maybe has been very influential to you. We tend to be fans of one another, and that can make you feel a little bit like you’re on the back foot. But every time you’re trying to learn something new, you’re trying to stretch beyond the music that you’ve played before, and you’re hoping that what you have to offer the other party is equally valuable.

The new record, Secrets Are the Best Storiesis coming out in April. Can you give us any information about the record and what we can expect from it?

I certainly can. Secrets Are the Best Stories began as a small series of duet concerts that Danilo and I gave together. We wanted to connect for several years, and Danilo has been on the road with Wayne Shorter for the last 20 years, so he’s been very, very busy indeed. He’s obviously a marvelous arranger and composer, and I wanted to get into his space — not only the space that he particularly occupies, but the way that he has learned to approach interactions from working with Wayne and that beautiful quartet. So, this new disc is going to have several compositions of Danilo’s, to which I happily wrote lyrics. There’s a Wayne tune to which I wrote a lyric, there’s another Vince Mendoza composition, there’s one from Jaco Pastorius. It’s heavy on my own lyric writing, it’s heavy on my will to continue to move forward. It’s not really a romance record in terms of content; it’s the contemplation … of our larger situation at this moment in time in the world, but also things that have struck me in the past — the way history resonates, the way it echoes and bounces and careens, and the price that we pay and the benefits that we derive from history. There’s a piece that is dedicated to Toni Morrison because of a relationship that Danilo and his wife were able to establish with her close to the end of her life that was very, very inspiring and invigorating for them. There’s a piece for the poet Robert Fly, who’s always been a champion for me. He really sets a certain standard of concept and grace. So, it’s a little bit more considered and measured piece, rather than something you might immediately apprehend. It has mysteries within it.

When you’re collaborating with someone like Danilo Pérez, or with someone else who has created music and you then put your stamp, your voice, your words to it, is there a particular approach or does it vary every time?

It’s a little bit of both. I let my intuition lead me. Sometimes, if I’m working with somebody like Danilo, then I can get a pretty clear picture of what he was trying to convey as the composer of the music — what temperature of emotion, what specific concept if there was one, what story he or she may have been wanting to tell — and that means that I can tailor what I’m creating to broadcast that message more clearly. In other cases, you have to take the idea in a completely different direction and cut against the grain … I don’t mean to make it a big secret. My intuition leads me, I try to make things rhyme, I try to have a coherent story or something that really amplifies the original intent of the composer, and I try to do my best.

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