Earshot Jazz presents former Seattle, now New York resident, Kendra Shank and her New York Quartet at the Seattle Art Museum on Thursday, May 8th at 5:30pm.

Seattle Art Museum Downtown
1300 First Avenue, Seattle
Free with museum admission.

The following is a review from a recent performance at Flushing Town Hall.

Queens, New York, April 4, 2008

By Andrew Freund

Welcome to Flushing Town Hall, a surprising two-story Victorian structure dating to the mid-19th Century, well before a few separate regions coalesced into one mammoth New York City. We are in famously heterogeneous, residential northern Queens, and the institution is an anomaly in a neighborhood typified by sometimes perplexingly foreign businesses and store signs in various Asian scripts. An open-minded, savvy administration turned the hall into a notable arts center fifteen years ago, drawing significant stars and companies from the worlds of classical, jazz, and international music to an old-fashioned chamber setting far from Manhattan, along the way creating its very own devoted audience.

Tonight, the first floor L-shaped performance space (this place was originally designed for politics, not music) finds Kendra Shank and her musical companions of just under a decade — pianist Frank Kimbrough, bassist Dean Johnson and traps and hand drummer Tony Moreno – in its fulcrum, warmly essaying the knowing, love-saturated vibe of Cole Porter’s All of You. Those of us in a different kind of know are immediately reminded of Kendra’s many musical virtues, her lovely natural instrument (if she were a wine, she would be a merlot), her gracious sense of proportion (no rough edges here), her combination of innate musicality and lightly expressed wisdom. In a word, Kendra is an adult.

Kendra’s latest CD, A Spirit Free, is an homage to the compositions of her friend and mentor, the resplendent vocalist Abbey Lincoln, and tonight’s next song is Abbey’s most performed work, the philosophical Throw it Away (self-help really, redeemed by unforgettable lyrics and music). Kendra has recorded this modern standard on her last two recordings, in very different versions, and here is another variation — again opening with Kendra’s Incantation in the imaginary, African-sounding language she has been developing in recent years, before featuring Tony Moreno playing his drum kit with his hands. The Town Hall audience does not seem to be a jazz crowd (more a membership grouping, maybe), and I suspect most have never heard the song. Yet I am also certain that given Kendra’s nonpareil communicative ability, they have caught every nuance of Lincoln’s boldly idiosyncratic exhortation.

Throw it Away is taken at a faster pace than normal. A pattern is already becoming evident. The longstanding, “telepathic” (that jazz critic’s trope) quartet is deeply pleased to be performing in an “acoustically superior, listening” environment (Kendra’s words), and their collective spirits are elevated. After a lilting Kirk Nurock/Judy Niemack I’m Moving On and Lincoln’s passionately pensive Down Here Below, we are treated to a classic, the Kurt Weill/Ira Gershwin This is New. The song is a story song from the forties musical One Touch of Venus, and some of the words make no sense outside the show’s context, but it doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter! Kendra takes it as a headlong burner and believes in its adventure (“I am hurled up to another world where life is bliss”) so thoroughly that it seems as if she is personally confessing to just discovered joy.
It is a jazz cliché to be “in the moment.” But for some time now, Kendra has done something equally organic. While exploring a fairly limited current repertoire, she trusts her emotions of the moment and her band’s resultant mood totally, transforming the individual songs into virtual movements in each gig’s unique jazz symphony. Tonight’s spirit is freer than ever, the highs higher, the ballads deeper, the lyricism unmediated. Now we are visited by the tragedy of a haunting, yet unnamed original Kendra is still developing – only to be upended as it is abandoned after a few lines and seamlessly transformed into Blue Skies. Except, you see, that Irving Berlin’s happy assertiveness is replaced by the rueful recognitions of its introduction. “Blue skies shining on me; nothing but blue skies do I see” – now the famous line is turned upside down, doubting. Eerie. Brilliant.

I am a longtime Kendrologist. Kendra began singing jazz two decades ago and I was on board a few years later. (I heard her once in her previous incarnation as a mesmerizing folksinger/guitarist.) In her early years, she sang compellingly, but with a limited range of jazz options. Her stock in trade was a quietly amazing sensuality, and her strongest improvisational ability was the only device she borrowed from Billie Holiday, the freedom to travel far behind or dashingly ahead of a tune’s cadence and beat. Over the years Kendra slowly, organically evolved her full jazz armamentarium, regularly surprising me and her other fans with stylistic ploys we never before heard from her. She is now a complete artist, capable of any manner of musical expression she can imagine.

After several more originals from colleagues, Kendra closes with her blazing hot, impassioned transformation of the old British folksong, a staple of her previous life, Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair. “Black” is Kendra’s self-proclaimed “greatest hit” (jazz humor), surely her most audacious arrangement, and a perfect example of what jazz does, turning great music into something it wasn’t before, making it greater in the process. Except that she opens with a new, wordless précis, so surprising that I cannot guess what the song will turn out to be. This may be Kendra’s final frontier — the willingness to revamp on the fly, even messing with her most successful creations. And, to paraphrase Ira Gershwin’s lyric in This is New: head to toe, she’s got us so we’re spellbound.

The Kendra Shank Quartet will be appearing this coming May 8 (from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.) at the Seattle Art Museum’s Art of Jazz series, curated by Earshot Jazz. To Seattle’s jazz lovers, a group I once proudly represented as a writer and editor, I can only say please come out that day and see how a singer you thought you knew has progressed in ways that once might have seemed unimaginable.

Earshot Jazz