What’s a jazz singer supposed to do? For Elling, the question is more than political: he feels a responsibility to the music to push the state of the art forward. He’s keenly aware of his talents as a musician, but also his limitations. “I love being a jazz singer,” he says. “I’m proud of it. That’s the way I think of myself. I feel an obligation to the great singers who preceded me. I want to sing so they’re proud of me.
“I think my gifts are that I am somewhat easy in front of an audience. That I intuitively know how to structure a performance for audiences. That I can sing in tune most of the time. And that, once in a while, I can write something in a lyric that’s pretty good. I’m 52—I’d better be writing something worth hearing now, otherwise … when’s it gonna come around?
“But I sure wish I could sing better. Really better. If I could do what Bobby McFerrin does and know that much stuff! The intonation, the chordal information that he masters. Or if I could sing a bebop line like Jon [Hendricks] used to sing … oh my God! And it’s just because I haven’t really done the homework. I haven’t done enough to really master it yet. It’s my own fault. And I’ll never be able to sing the blues like Joe Williams; it just won’t happen. It’s too late. I would have had to have a different childhood [laughs]. The high point of my blues career was that I got to sing backup for Buddy Guy at the White House—full stop. That’s the blues. A good man knows his limitations.”
Elling is concerned for the future of the kind of forward-leaning jazz singing in which he specializes. “I have a goal in the next 10 years: to help plant a bunch of saplings among the male jazz singing population. There should be five or six guys chasing me right now who scare the shit out of me. And I’m not scared! So. Anybody wants to scare me, I will help you scare me. I will engage you. We need you. The music needs you.”
He does want to tip his hat to some of the younger singers who are following in the tradition. “Just off the top of my head, to my friend Gregory Porter; to JD Walter; to Allan Harris, God bless him. All right, who else? John Pizzarelli, obviously; what a hero that guy is. Also, Anthony Strong in London. A young guy, musically talented; he’s on the right road.”
Elling and Pérez can’t say enough about the experience of working with each other. “Danilo’s level of musicianship is particularly clear on this record,” Elling says. “His abilities are exposed. And he challenged the shit out of me! When was the last time I sang a bespoke clave in 13? How about never?” he laughs. He was referring to the song “Beloved (for Toni Morrison),” with its unusual clave beat.
“And he was so encouraging to me. He was like [imitating Pérez’s Panamanian accent] ‘No, man, you gonna get it!’ I’d say, ‘No, man, I don’t have it!’ And he’d say, ‘You don’t have it today, but you gonna get it. I love you, man; it’s gonna be great.’”
Although they chose the songs and wrote the lyrics in advance, Pérez says, he and Elling prepared very little before the recording session. Pérez improvised many of his parts in the moment, inspired by Elling’s lyrics. “Kurt has such freedom with language,” Pérez says, “it’s like he creates a dance partner for me with his lyrics.”
Pérez’s “Beloved,” inspired by the Nobel Prize-winning writer Morrison’s blockbuster novel about the trauma of slavery, began as a composition for piano. Daunted by the task of writing a lyric based on such a complex and dark book, Elling was initially at a loss until Pérez suggested a text to Kurt: an 1857 work by the Abolitionist poet Frances Ellen Watkins Harper about a slave mother escaping with her four children. The poem, reportedly, was important source material for the novelist.
“Once I heard the power of his words, it changed the way I played it,” Pérez says. “I like to play with the idea of bar lines, which is something we do with Wayne; he got it from Miles.” The singer and pianist adopted a rubato feel that captures the rhythms of speech, requiring the musicians to be in the moment and fully responsive to the singer and the lyrics. “When he sang it, it was easy for me to hear the spaces and where they belong.”
It’s not only Elling’s lyrics that inspire Pérez; it’s also the sound of his voice. “His sound makes me hear colors,” Pérez says. “His connection as a storyteller with the words and the rhymes are a total inspiration for me. You know, to go out of your comfort zone, like we do with Wayne, takes a lot of courage. I wanted to give Kurt a taste of what it’s like to be in Wayne’s quartet, to work with that feeling of opening doors. I’m grateful he had the courage to do that.”
Secrets also includes “A Certain Continuum,” Elling’s lyric to Jaco Pastorius’ famed “Continuum,” and “Esperanto,” based on composer/arranger Vince Mendoza’s “Esperança.” “Jaco’s stuff is undersung,” Elling says. “The best instrumentalists, like Jaco, are singing when they play. When I hear Dexter Gordon in full flight, for example, man, I think he’s the greatest singer who ever lived. Man, I wish I could sing like that. When I write a lyric to one of Dexter’s solos [as he did with “Body and Soul” from Gordon’s Homecoming: Live at the Village Vanguard album], then I can sing like Dexter; I can at least approximate it.” Speaking of Mendoza, Elling says, “And Vince, man … if I could afford him, I’d have him arrange everything I do.”
Elling offers effusive praise for all the musicians on the record, singling out Pinheiro (on “Esperanto”) and Zenón (“Beloved”). “Chico is a very selfless musician,” Elling said. “Every room he walks into, he asks, how can I serve? And he delivers, too. I think that was the first take, and we were done. That brother deserves a medal.” Of Zenón, Elling said, “On the scale of intense MFs, he’s way over here! He’s a stallion, one of the top three guys in any platform. If he calls me for anything, the answer is ‘Yes, it will be an honor.’”
If Elling’s standards are sometimes impossibly high, his interest, ultimately, is in creating something deathless. His greatest admiration is for poets. “All of my lyrics have happened because there was an existing melody of some kind. Whereas, poetry stands alone in silence. Auden or Rumi or Rilke—we just see the words, and our life is changed! The words overrule everything and, in Rilke’s words, ‘you must change your life.’”
That’s the stuff that Elling wants to devote his life to. “It’s got nothing to do with commerce,” he says. “That’s what we’re here for. To play the stuff that you play, and say, what else could I possibly play? What choice did Pres have? And for the world to come after him like that! And here I sit in my privileged place in the Upper West Side, doing half the work that he did as a musician. All I can do is try to figure it out … Do it because you’ve fallen in love with it and don’t have any choice. There’s enough bullshit happening.”