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Kurt Elling & Danilo Pérez at Jazz, TX

Kurt Elling & Danilo Pérez
Jazz, TX
San Antonio, Texas
May 9, 2024

Kurt Elling's presence has a density that generates its own gravitational pull. He plants himself solidly in the moment onstage and draws the audience in. Danilo Pérez is similarly brilliant and focused. He shares Elling's dedication to the impromptu and both are ardent storytellers. They complement one another in a duo setting, each bringing an array of abilities and sensibilities. That evening, Pérez's lines tended to evanesce, moving toward abstraction, while Elling's dug into the personal.

The show was dramatic and the experience intimate, enhanced by the snugness of the physical setting, a basement boîte (former bottling room of the Pearl Brewery, now chic). Pérez and Elling improvised freely while entering the stage and adjusting their equipment, then settled seamlessly into a Thelonious Monk tune, "Pannonica," "Trinkle Tinkle" and/or "In Walked Bud" (depending on the set).

Declaring that "we are improvisers and the world needs improvisers," Elling welcomed the audience, inviting them on "an excursion into the unforeheard." Next stop was "Stage I" by British pianist-composer Django Bates and Norwegian singer-composer Sidsel Endresen, the first of several spellbinding offerings from Elling and Pérez's Grammy award-winning album, Secrets Are the Best Stories (Edition Records, 2020). In a lyric comprised of evocative similes, "like flying kites from a basement window" fit the moment well. The audience was ready to follow the kites.

An unaccompanied reading of Robert Bly's "Visiting Sand Island" was followed by Pérez's "Gratitude" (another selection from their album), with Elling's lyric dedicated to Bly. Elling's approach to the lyric in this piece is extraordinary; it functions as a kind of translation of the Bly poem. He interprets the poem musically, in his own words, working within the implied syntax of Pérez's melodic lines, a method that makes use of skills he has developed in crafting vocalese. The lyric concludes with an acknowledgment of the poet ("this someone who can sing the moon"). "Someone ought to tell him," Elling sings, "maybe we ought to tell him." In the live setting—where jazz performers are expected to stretch out, where there are no radio-friendliness five-minute track constraints—they took advantage of the luxury of time to develop the story by presenting poem and song in sequence.

Similarly, Elling read Lydia Davis' (very) short story "Lost Things" before launching into "Where to Find It," his vocalese version of Wayne Shorter's "Aung San Suu Kyi." Fans of Superblue, his project with guitarist-composer and producer Charlie Hunter, will remember "Where to Find It" from their self-titled release (Edition Records, 2021). Davis' whimsical story begins like this: "They are lost, but also not lost but somewhere in the world." Elling's lyric points to where such things might be found, "Find it in the message undelivered—unsealed, unlimiting, impulse pivoting." In a studio duet performance of "Stage I," for instance, Pérez pulls his hands away from the piano before resolving the final phrase, keeping them suspended above the keyboard until the vibrations of the song have died away. Yes, sometimes it is in the notes left unplayed (See YouTube, bottom of this page).

Stevie Wonder's "Overjoyed" has become an encore piece for the duo on live dates. Pérez wrote an arrangement for Till Then (Verve, 2003), his album with bassist Ben Street and drummer Adam Cruz. With Elling, he reworked and released it as a bonus track on Secrets Are the Best Stories. At Jazz, TX, Elling and Pérez invoked Wonder, but not by sounding like him. Pérez's lines were his own, but they had a distilled quality. In a whimsical moment, he turned to the synthesizer, dialing up a crazy harmonica timbre and melodizing at the margins of the piece while somehow letting Wonder's sound resonate within the room, undamped.

Elling and Pérez each have full itineraries; duo appearances are rare. The San Antonio date was part of a brief tour that began at the Ravinia Festival near Chicago, Elling's home town, then went deep into the heart of Texas for three concerts. Good to be in the flight path of those migrating birds.




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