The beginning of Kendra Shank's new disc Mosaic doesn't bode well, as it opens with a song specifically sculpted for radio airplay. The tracka very beautiful, very faithful rendition of "So Far Away," Carole King's second-best balladwould be equally at home on either Smooth Jazz radio or Adult Contemporary outfits looking to sound hip. The good news is that the rest of Mosaic stays very far away from the commercial direction of that first cut.
Consumers who purchase the disc on the strength of the single will be amazed at the pallet of colors Shank uses. Both she and pianist Frank Kimbrough have the same dazzling sense of nuance and texture, and selected appearances by reedman Billy Drewes and guitarist Ben Monder add scope to a set list that ranges from Cole Porter and Johnny Mandel standards to dizzying translations of 13th-century texts by the Sufi poet Rumi. It's a real rangesomething else Shank has in great supply.
Cedar Walton's "Life's Mosaic" jumps into view a few seconds after "So Far Away" ends, setting up real possibilities for culture shock. Shank gets down to business immediately, flying breathtaking formation with Drewes and Kimbrough. Monder throws in just enough feedback to grab some attention, while Kimbrough tosses colors to and fro. Shank's middle-section scat is riveting, and is right in line with her partners' knuckleballing approach. In fine showbiz tradition, she saves the best for last, soaring over the group's frenetic bebop attack.
Three luminous song pairings give Shank even more room to move. Victor Young's grooving "Beautiful Love" is preceded by "Water from Your Spring," one of two Rumi poems on Mosaic; Shank alternates between swooping vocalization and a straight reading of the text, while her partners weave a swirling tone poem around her. Shank's airy meditation "Reflections in Blue" sets the table for a wonderfully understated take on Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies," and the dancing "Laughing at Life" lets Shank approach "Smile" in a less traditional way: instead of the quivering-upper-lip sensibility usually associated with the Charlie Chaplin classic, Shank's protagonist knows things are going to get better, so why waste time crying?
The brilliance is in the details on Mosaic, as Shank captures the emotional center of each piece without digging for drama. She intimates the lost love in Mandel's "The Shining Sea" instead of waving it like a flag, and she finds a further level of loneliness in "So Far Away" that King never touched on the original recording. Kimbrough is an ideal partner in this enterprise, as he does more with less than any keyboardist in the genre. He "writes" a love letter to his favorite musician on "For Duke," and his lyricism on Bill Evans' "Time Remembered" dovetails with the composer's legendary approach. Mosaic may bow briefly to economic realities, but Kendra Shank's incandescent voice should be experienced by everyoneeven smooth jazz fans.
Personnel: Kendra Shank: vocals; Frank Kimbrough: piano; Dean Johnson: bass; Tony Moreno: drums; Billy Drewes: soprano sax, tenor sax, clarinet; Ben Monder: guitar.