Now after three and a half decades of memorable recording history, Rankin enters into an exciting new chapter with his debut Verve release, A Song For You. With a host of equally talented musicians, crème de la crème producers and a combination of heartfelt songs all working in simpatico with one another, A Song For You is a beautiful work of art.
JazzReview: How did that all come about, your debut release with Verve?
Kenny Rankin: It started a couple of Christmases ago when I received a Diana Krall album as a gift. I looked on the back and saw two names that I’ve always wanted to be in the studio with. That was Al Schmitt and Tommy LiPuma. So I called Al and one thing led to another. Before I knew it, I was in the studio with Al and Tommy having the time of my life.
JazzReview: It’s a gorgeous album. You certainly had a dream team of musicians with you on this CD [David Spinozza, Leon Pendarvis, Christian McBride, Lewis Nash and special guests Roy Hargrove, Chris Potter, Russell Malone]. How were your musicians chosen?
Kenny Rankin: Well actually it was Tommy and Al. You know, these are Tommy’s guys and they just surrounded me with virtuosity. It was my job to stay out of my own way and sing the story and tell the song. That’s how I like to describe what I do. So they asked me to create basic arrangements of the songs and how I wanted to approach them as a vocalist. Not even as a vocalist they asked me how would I approach them as a human being [laughs] because the songs are so very real and vivid. I brought what an actor might in a Martin Scorsese film because it’s very similar, you can compare the two. I now understand what any actor might feel like being in a film by Ron Howard or Martin Scorsese.
JazzReview: There are so many beautiful songs on your CD and you express them with such emotion. Some are so heart wrenching, while others are lightly spirited, like how you handled ’Round Midnight.
Kenny Rankin: Yeah, that was fun. It’s normally such a depressing song, so I put something else on it.
JazzReview: You have always had the ability to mix genres on your CDs, yet they always seem to compliment each other so well. How do you do that?
Kenny Rankin: The idea in doing whatever it is that I do is to keep myself interested and not get bored. I think if I played the same type of song one right after another, I would get bored right away and ultimately the listener would too. I just mix them up.
JazzReview: Normally, people either like to listen to rock, or jazz, or pop, and not prefer to listen to an album that mixes genres. But the blending always seems to work so well for you and your album presents itself as one musical unit. This is an exceptional gift you have.
Kenny Rankin: Well, you want to know something? It’s not anything that I am doing intentionally. I don’t know how to make believe or really how to conceptualize an album. To me they’re one-act plays and I look at each and every one of them differently. However the story hits me and who the characters in the stories are, who I empathize, identify and relate to the experience something like that has got to happen to get the hairs on my arms to stand up. Then I know I’m onto something. That is how I pick out songs, not by what they sound like, but what they make me feel like.
JazzReview: I loved your interpretation of the title track (A Song For You). I think you reinvented it with more feeling than Leon Russell could have ever imagined. It’s so utterly beautiful, it took my breath away.
Kenny Rankin: It’s not really a question of more or less. It’s a question of individual. In September, I had the opportunity at the Berkley School of Music, to talk with students and field their questions. One of the questions was ‘How or what do I do to create my voice?’ It’s like whatever you sound like, that’s what you sound like. That’s your voice. To try sounding like someone else, you’re losing your identity and your own personal conviction of what your singing. As a singer or even an actor, you have to ask what is it that I’m doing? Or do I want to sound like Humphrey Bogart? I gave an example that explains it for me. Randy Newman and Jimmy Webb are not great singers, but boy, can they sing a song! It’s because they believe what they are talking about.
JazzReview: It’s a gift and not too many people have that ability to stand out from the rest. I also believe a singer has to go through some things in their life to be able to deliver a song the way you do.
Kenny Rankin: A blues man would call that ‘dues.’ Oh, I don’t know if it’s so much dues or a payment on your soul, as it is just having survived yourself. It’s living a life and as you come down that road, that’s the experience you sing, speak, talk and write about.
JazzReview: How do you view, if any, the evolution of your music?
Kenny Rankin: Man, I don’t know. Well, it’s me as a person more than the music. The music is a result, I think, of what we do as individuals as a wonderful form of expression, to let out feelings of your experience. I passed that along to I had an occasion to be at the PS183 in New York City in my old neighborhood. You know, I got my start in the fourth grade when someone encouraged me. That’s kind of what I like to do, go to these schools and bring my experience and words to kids as some form of encouragement give something back to the community. It’s just great. Music evolves of course. Now, who am I? I am my father. I guess that’s who I’ve grown up to be [laughter].
JazzReview: What was the reason for some of your breaks in recording? Was that well-thought planning or something else?
Kenny Rankin: No, that was waiting for the flavor of the week. It’s like an ebb and flow business. I have been around so long, and that’s the good news. The bad news is I’ve been around so long [laughs]. You get a handful of different questions, one of them being, what did I do when I wasn’t recording. Well, I was recording. I was probably recording for some boutique label or on the road someplace. It’s not a plan. I mean I’d like to record once a month if it was up to me, but that’s not the way it works.
I’m a touring player. I like to travel and go to exotic parts of the world. I feel grateful when I have the opportunity to be invited into other people’s evenings because it’s really about them.
JazzReview: It must give you tremendous pleasure to hear other legendary artists perform your own songs.
Kenny Rankin: Oh man, it does! As a matter of fact, I just sent a lead sheet of a song I wrote a long time ago to Nancy Wilson and Ramsey Lewis.
JazzReview: Fantastic. So do you have a treasure-trove of songs that are still unpublished?
Kenny Rankin: No, everything I’ve written was published. But I recorded a song a long time ago called Lost Up in Loving You on an album called ‘Inside.’ I got a call from their publicist who wanted the song.
JazzReview: What inspired the song Haven’t We Met?
Kenny Rankin: I didn’t write the lyrics. That was Ruth Baxter. I just had the music. I think Neil Hefti had a recording out just around that time. It was a jazz waltz in 6/8. I liked the figure and was just learning how to play the guitar. I came up with this melody and Ruth put the words to it.
JazzReview: If you could go back and change anything about your career, what would it be?
Kenny Rankin: I’d learn to read music. There are so many things you would say you would want to change, but I’ve enjoyed the experiences. I guess I wouldn’t want to change anything.
JazzReview: Do you have a favorite album?
Kenny Rankin: For sentimental reasons, there were two--Silver Morning and an album I did with Don Costa, but my favorite album is the one I just did with Verve. I’m not trying to sound corny, but I loved what we did. We all enjoyed it tremendously. It was a labor of love with a bunch of extraordinary musicians.