A challenge to any jazz musician is a competent and plausible yet inventive interpretation of music from the familiar canon of jazz standards. Certainly that challenge doubles for a jazz vocalist reinterpreting the songs of another jazz singer/songwriter. That challenge triples when that singer/songwriter is one as revered as Abbey Lincoln. On her new CD, A Spirit Free: Abbey Lincoln Songbook on the Challenge Records label, Kendra Shank and her band masterfully meet these challenges and present Lincoln’s music with a new and unique perspective. A Spirit Free: Abbey Lincoln Songbook creates not only a tribute to Abbey Lincoln’s music, but Shank’s level of vocal expression and the creative work of the highly skilled instrumentalists accompanying Shank indicate a familiarity with Abbey Lincoln well beyond her musical opera. Effectively what Kendra Shank and her sidemen create goes beyond a mere tribute and is effectively a portrait of this iconic creative artist via her music.
The recording takes the listener through a variety of emotional settings. The opening song "The Music is the Magic" is set with an opening filled with sounds of an African kalimba and Shank’s chanting. Along with a rhythmic 5/4 groove, these musical devices enhance the exotic and mysteriousness of the magic of music. For this listener, a highlight of the recording is the song "Down Here Below." The sad tint of the song reflective in Shank’s plaintive vocal supported by Dean Johnson’s spare bass and the accompaniment performed on Gary Versace’s accordion. The down low component of the song is enhanced by Billy Drewe’s breathy bass clarinet played down below.
The seriousness of "Down Here Below" is immediately contrasted by the subsequent medium tempo "A Circle of Love." The hopeful spirit of the song is uplifted by the lilting voice of Shank accompanied by the very tasteful instrumental fills by pianist Frank Kimbrough’s and guitarist Ben Monder. Billy Drewe’s contributes another inventive solo this time on tenor saxophone. Continuing an upbeat mood is the simple and playful song "Natas (A/K/A Playmate)." Accompanied only by the accordion of Gary Versace, Shank’s voice bounces along in her scat solo in a mood of fun childlike discovery. The bitter sweet sentimentality of the reflective ballad that closes the recording, "Being Me" compels one to ponder the creative spirit and personality of Abbey Lincoln.From beginning to end, A Spirit Free: Abbey Lincoln Songbook is a wonderful listening experience. The recording contains well written songs, very highly honed musical craftsmanship and artistic creativity that would make the CD an excellent addition to anyone’s jazz recording collection.