Pure Tones Deep Meanings

Kendra Shank Deserves Some Prime Time

Like the late jazz-cabaret singer Susannah McCorkle, Shank first discovered the American jazz tradition while living abroad, through Billie Holiday records that a European friend played for her in 1988. "I lost all interest in other kinds of music and I just had to do jazz," though, as we have seen, one of the things that makes her jazz so unique is her foundation in these other kinds of music. She bought a fake book of jazz standards and began sitting in at Parisian jazz clubs, where she met Ed Schuller (bassist and son of Gunther Schuller) who advised her that she should study with Jay Clayton (a respected teacher and one of the major avant-garde jazz vocalists to come along in the '70s) when she returned to Seattle. Kendra recalls, "From Jay I got the basics of writing a chart, leading a band, and learning the form of a tune. I immediately turned my French and folk/pop gigs into jazz gigs."

By the early '90s, Shank had sung backup for saxophonist Jim Pepper and singer-songwriter Bob Dorough, and formed lasting protégée-mentor type relationships with singer-pianist Shirley Horn and then with contemporary jazz's greatest singer-songwriter, Abbey Lincoln. Horn introduced Shank to Mapleshade Records, which produced her first album, Afterglow (1992), and helped arrange for her to premiere it at the Village Vanguard. Lincoln gave her a place to stay when she first moved to New York, and in 2000, asked Shank to play flamenco guitar on "Blackberry Blossoms,"on her album Over the Years. Shank never imitated Shirley, but it was Horn's influence that led her to concentrate on slow ballads on Afterglow, which opens with a knowing, vulnerable reading of Elvis Costello's "Almost Blue."

In her last years in Seattle, she worked with bassist Jeff Johnson, whose original compositions appear on both of her subsequent albums, Wish (1998) and Reflections (2000, both on the Calgary-based Jazz Focus). Shank did not fully relocate to New York until 1997. The late '90s, when the albums were coming out, provided fairly steady work. Shank and her booking agent were able to put together a series of mini-tours across the U.S.A. and Canada that included the Blue Note and Birdland, Blues Alley in D.C., and the Dakota in St. Paul, among many others. Reflections (a highlight, "Song a Little Known," is an adaptation of Ellington's "Reflections in D" by Marjorie and Milt Raskin) debuted her regular backup, a trio—Frank Kimbrough, piano, Dean Johnson, bass, and Tony Moreno, drums—that can provide muscular rhythmic force and an expansive harmonic palette as needed.

Kendra Shank
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Kendra Shank

The Dubya years have been no better for jazz artists than anyone else; record labels pruned their rosters and clubs began sticking only with surefire big names. This is a time when Shank had elected to stay closer to home, declining pursuit of out-of-town gigs in favor of performing in various low-profile New York venues. In February 2002, she performed and recorded at the recently relocated Iridium, producing the finest tape of her music I have heard to date (some of it was played on NPR's Jazz Set)—it's a session some label ought to pick up and release. More recently, Shank has been working hard on her most ambitious project, the first songbook album devoted to the music of Abbey Lincoln.

Partly through the inspiration of Clayton and another teacher, Rhiannon, in New York, Shank occasionally includes scat and wordless improvisation in her work. (In 2000 she served as a sideperson, singing trumpet lines with guitarist Peter Leitch and saxophonist Bobby Watson on the former's Blues on the Corner.) She also recently recorded a free improvisation with pianist-compere Marian McPartland for Piano Jazz. She doesn't do the scat thing all that much, but in a way it's central to her music. "When you go without words, it can take you to a very deep place," she says, "an experience that's beyond the power of words to describe. You're not thinking, you're channeling, you're apart from your analytical mind, what you call improvising is really serving as a vehicle for something that's passing through you. That's what making music is about for me, that's why I love it so much." Perhaps that's why there's no one better in her generation to convey the genuine vitality of jazz singing.

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