Today, through the words, mind and soul of Abbey Lincoln, comes those same feelings from vocalist/philosopher/educator, and hopefully soon to be composer, Kendra Shank. Kendra Shank is here with all the passion and insight of a most seasoned classic jazz performer with her 2007 launch A Spirit Free (Abbey Lincoln Songbook), opening the doors of interpretation and untarnished innovation in a classic jazz way.
Kendra Shank is an artist, but under that label is so much more, for she teaches others to dream, learn and embrace that which she practices. She talks as an educationalist, not only about music, but the inner sanctum of its meaning and the philosophy as it pertains to her craft. She is a performer first and foremost, but listen to her words and they speak to the core of jazz itself.
Kendra sculpts the words and craft of Abbey Lincoln through her own eyes and sound. Her newest recording, A Spirit Free (Abbey Lincoln Songbook), is just not a tribute to the great Abbey Lincoln, it is a palette showcasing the lovely talent of Kendra Shank.
As Kendra will explain, she looks to go "left of center" when it comes to her selections. She reaches out to embrace these classic artists, pulls from their expertise, and marries them with her own interpretations. Kendra speaks to many things and as you will note, her convictions are strong and vibrant--as we meet Kendra between sets!
JazzReview: Kendra, it has been documented that you are one of the most innovative jazz vocalists today. In fact, noted to be one of the top jazz singers in the industry. Your thoughts on these accolades?
Kendra Shank: Why, (Laughing) that’s somebody’s opinion. (Laughing) I don’t call myself one of the most innovative singers around. That is the kind of statement I would not make myself, but I am honored that someone said that about me. Maybe one reason it was said is because I moved away from very classical, traditional, straight ahead standards. I look for material outside the Great American Songbook. That is what interests me. I want material that has not been done so much.
When I do a standard, I approach it from my own particular slant like any artist does. I also bring in some colors and sounds that are not common to straight ahead jazz, and I approach my music as a member of an ensemble (as opposed to singing fronting a band). We play with a sort of "sound painting," polyphonic approach that’s maybe different from the traditional vocalist approach -- open and loose. This may be what brings out part of that comment.
JazzReview: You mention the Great American Songbook. Describe for us your definition of it and what it means to you.
Kendra Shank: From what I understand, that term refers to those popular songs that became jazz standards, many coming from Broadway musical material--songs by Rogers and Hart, Cole Porter, all the great composers.
In my opinion, Abbey Lincoln should be a member of the Great American Songbook class. If it means great songs by great American composers, Abbey would be one of our current contemporary members. I believe Abbey’s songs will become some of the new standards. I believe also she is one of the greatest songwriters we ever had.
JazzReview: That is a powerful statement. What makes you say that?
Kendra Shank: I personally feel her songs speak to me. I can relate to them and what they express about human experience. These are things I have experienced in my life. What I think makes her such a great songwriter is the way she expresses these timeless and universal truths of the human condition and experience. She has a narrative voice that is so direct and imagistic, it’s like great poetry. Abbey tells a story that seems so simple, but is complex. She has layers of meaning within a simple story, almost like a folk song. Each time I listen to the song or I sing the song, I get a different meaning. It’s just another layer of the onion.
It also is the same with her music like "Down Here Below," which is a masterpiece of harmony, melody and chord structure. Some of her songs, like I said, sound like simple folk-like songs, and yet they have these sophisticated changes and meter shifts. These add spice to the composition.
JazzReview: You mentioned "folk" in relation to Abbey many times. In my research, I found you had a folk background. Were you able to dig deeper in to Abbey’s moods and feelings because of your background?
Kendra Shank: Well, I think so. I think that is why it kept coming up in response to your last question, because I come from there originally. When I started exploring Abbey Lincoln’s songs in preparation to record this project, I kept noticing how it (Abbey’s style) related to my folk music. It brought back out of me some of the qualities I had kind of abandoned as I got so focused on jazz. It helped me come to a sort of integration of myself and a more holistic approach to my music. I started to embrace my folk music roots again and draw into that, my past influences, plus my musical foundation.
For an example of that, I go back to "Down Here Below." When I was first playing through the tune and listening for how it would speak to me, it reminded me of the British Isles ballads I used to play as a folk singer. That is where I came up with the idea of using the accordion and the bass clarinet. It was because of remembering these British Isles ballads with the squeeze-box or the concertina, and thinking how beautiful that would sound with a woodwind. I was even at the time thinking of a double reed, like an oboe or English horn. I decided on the bass clarinet because Billy (Drewes) really doesn’t play double reeds, and he captured the mood beautifully.
Another example of this reuniting to my roots through exploring Abbey’s songs is "The World is Falling Down." I felt this could be done as a country tune, the way I used to play country music and bluegrass -- that’s how I kept hearing it in my head. It was Frank’s (Kimbrough) idea to put it into ¾ time. That was brilliant and really made the cut happen. I was going to bring it totally into a country vein, but decided to be less literal. I’d originally thought of pedal steel because I love that sound, but I wanted to keep the basic unit of a group together, so instead of bringing in another guitarist, I asked Ben (Monder) if he could approximate that mood in his own way. He did it so beautifully and creatively.
JazzReview: In keeping with Abbey Lincoln, it seemed to be your destiny to do this tribute. How difficult was it to get in her skin, mindset and framework?
Kendra Shank: That really was not the issue. I wasn’t really trying to get in the mindset of Abbey; I was taking these beautiful songs of hers and finding my place in them--like I would with any song in seeing how it relates to me. It’s an artist’s job to express your view and your life experiences through your art. Abbey sings Abbey in Abbey’s way. When I interpret a song from any composer, it’s my job to take that song and live through it with my voice.
The challenge was to find my place in the song -- to let myself emerge from the song, not to imitate Abbey. But then, I couldn’t imitate Abbey if I tried. (Laughter)
JazzReview: Was Abbey an influence to your craft and career?
Kendra Shank: Without a question, Abbey has very much influenced my music and sound. Not that I sound like her, but her music has been a huge inspiration to me. It has also helped instruct me, and her songs and her words have been spiritual guides for me. I don’t imitate her, but I can hear influences from her and various people in my music. I think we all do imitate somewhat when we are in the beginning stages of our craft -- that’s how we learn. I think in the artistic process, you become the synthesis of everything you have ever heard and been moved by, after which, along with your life experiences and lessons, it all comes together to produce your own unique voice. Abbey has been a large influence not only in my career, but who I am as a person.
JazzReview: Was this just an exercise in the integration of two very different styles or the mixing of two very like moods?
Kendra Shank: Well, I feel an affinity towards Abbey, which is why I am drawn towards her music. I feel there are things in her music and songwriting that I relate very deeply to. I feel a kinship with it in some way.
The record was not an exercise in anything (Laughter); it came from me loving her songs. I wanted to record them. It wasn’t an intellectual exercise or an attempt to show anything. I loved what these songs had to say. There was no study on Abbey Lincoln, it was purely and simply me expressing myself through her beautiful compositions. I just followed my muse, instincts and ear to sing them the way they feel natural to me.
JazzReview: Let’s go back into the recording studio and the project itself. One special cut was the exit selection "Being Me." Which one was your favorite as to the finished project and which was your favorite to record?
Kendra Shank: That is such a hard question; it’s like they (the songs) are my children. I did not write these songs, but as an interpreter of them, I feel very close to them. I loved them all. Hmmmm! Well, I guess some stand out, but I can’t pick just one favorite. (Laughter)
"Down Here Below" I just feel really passionate about the song and track. It was beautiful to see it come together in the studio. There was no struggling over it. If I am drawn to a song, it’s because I feel the need to sing it. That was how it was with this cut. I had originally planned to do it with just the bass clarinet, acoustic bass and accordion. We got into the studio and it was not working. We were going in the right direction -- we were setting the mood, but something was missing. It was not blossoming.
Frank suggested bringing in the piano and the drums, and playing those subtly enough to still keep that core sound we wanted. Then when we got everyone together and got the take Oh my God! That was so thrilling to me in the studio, to finally hear it realized, because I’m walking around with this thing (sound) in my head and no one can hear it, but me. I try to explain it to people, what I am going after. Then we start playing together and watch it evolve. It’s like this chick coming out of an egg.
Another favorite of mine is "The World is Falling Down." I feel so close to that song. It was the first song I knew I was going to put on the project.
JazzReview: Since these cuts were like your "children," who was your problem child?
Kendra Shank: My problem child! (Laughing) Was there a problem child? They all came out pretty easy (Laughter) "Wholly Earth" -- it was not a problem child in the studio, it came out pretty easy, but in terms of the arrangement, it took a while to evolve. I had an arrangement idea for it, but it was a bit difficult to bring out of my head. I would try and execute my idea, but it wasn’t entirely working. We had about three years to play this stuff at our gigs so we had plenty of time to work it out. The problem was the extended meter part in the front wasn’t coming together. I heard the song as in being in two movements and there would be a contrast between the two halves by playing the first half in extended meter. All we did was tighten up and shorten the opening section; it’s all that was needed, thanks to Andy my co-producer.
JazzReview: If you would explain to those jazz students out there, and to us in the industry, "Improvisational Group Interplay" is almost like telepathic integration. Some folks say this is what you have between you and your current band.
Kendra Shank: I love that description. We have been playing together as an ensemble for eight years. When you play consistently with the same people for that long, you have this connection. You know each other very well. It’s a sonic connection with a lot of trust.
Our approach is it’s established that what I want in this group is something open. I am not dictating and saying, ‘okay here is the arrangement, it’s all written out with hits and parts that have to happen the same way every time.’ That is not my approach. The members of my band know that. They know that my approach is we have an arrangement for a song that’s a simple structure that is designed so that there is a lot of freedom around it. Like a road map. If we decide to follow this road map and one of us sees this really cool side road that goes off into the wilderness, and this member wants to go down there, they are free to go down there. We will go with him and find out what’s down there. In other words, we will go exploring.
That is the kind of trust we have in this band. We are all listening to one another at all times. That’s where this telepathic idea came from. If we are playing along and one of us hears something we need to express, and then express it. Since we are all open and listening and ready to take the music in any direction, each member will respond to that. In our group any person can jump and chime in. So we are spontaneously creating together in the moment. It’s about serving the music.
JazzReview: Where are you going from here?
Kendra Shank: That is what I am asking myself right now. (Laughter) This project so consumed me for the past four years of my life, it was like a mission. I was living this music for so long. I even turned down some record deals to do this project. It was a strong vision for me.
So what’s the next thing that is going to give me that same passion? I am waiting to see what that is. I am searching. I will be looking for material that excites me like these songs did. For years, I have been thinking there is a composer in me.
Maybe there is one!