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Interviews

Kenny Rankin: From the Heart

By Published: June 9, 2009

I've always messed with the melodies. I've always heard something other than what was written... I like to say that what I do is: I sing the story, and I tell the song.

Kenny Rankin died of lung cancer on June 7th, 2009. This interview was conducted in July 2002.

He sings with a fluid ease, whether it's a standard like "The Very Thought of You," the Beatles "Blackbird," a Latin-flavored "Berimbau," or his own "In the Name of Love." His soft voice caresses the most delicate phrases and gallops at fast tempos. But always, there is the twist of a phrase, taking a line somewhere unexpected, but inspired; a harmony tossed in that gives the song a lift, a tug here or there, a new way of showing you what the lyric is about. He's an interpreter whose brushes are dipped in passion and feeling and beauty.

He's Kenny Rankin, a treasure for over three decades. If he isn't often mentioned in the discussion of classic singers, it's not because he lacks the talent. Maybe it's because he's hard to categorize. He has a fondness for the great standards and can play a jazz room, but he has played folk and rock gigs as well. When it comes down to it, categories don't matter. Rankin quotes the oft-repeated Duke Ellintonism that there's only two types of music: good and bad.

"I'm just a singer. And I can sing anything that touches my heart," says Rankin in his mellow tenor tone. "And I think anybody can. If it touches you, it moves you. You're human. You're real. It stirs a passion. You become compassionate for whatever the song is being written about, sung about; spoken about... I can sing 'Blackbird,' I can sing 'Round Midnight.' I can sing 'Billie's Blues.' I can sing 'My Baby Just Cares For Me.' And I can sing that, and friggin' mean it. Because I've been there. Done that. I've got the T-shirt. You know what I mean?"

Listen to his albums over the years and you know he's right. Kenny Rankin, if nothing else, is passionate about his art. He's about to unveil the latest—very worthy—documentation of his musical journey. A Song For You will be released on the Verve label in August, produced by Tommy LiPuma and Al Schmitt. It's his first collaboration with those giants of the recording industry and he's excited about it. He should be.

The tunes on A Song for You are those that have been around, even a couple he's recorded before. But don't expect "Round Midnight" to sound like the version on Because of You, nor "I've Just Seen a Face" to sound like the rendition on the live disc from New York City's Bottom Line. The disc is fresh, heartfelt, and full of expression. It's Rankinesque, damn it.

Rankin jumped into a music career at a young age, signing with Decca as a teenager after a brief encounter with an agent who recognized his talent right away. He admits singing has always come natural to him. And he's pretty much always done things his own way. A conversation with Rankin is a free-flowing dialog about music and art, zest for both music and life and compassion. His eloquent dialogue is laced with humility and humor. And it's genuine. Like his art. Rankin is a person with everything in perspective. That shows up in his work.

"I've said this before, but I think it's worth repeating, because I think it explains it," he says in his casual, unassuming manner. "When I was born and was a kid, I was blessed with this gift of music. Because it came so easily, I thought what I did was who I was. Most of my career I thought that. Not consciously, but I thought that. Because being appreciated and acknowledged is a very intoxicating thing. It's very heady. Over the years I've come to understand that what I do is not who I am. Although I love my job, I'm not my work.

"The gift that's been given to me, of ability, I bring that to the work. So it's about the work. Which takes all the pressure off, and it comes back to me inside as an expression, as passion. As compassion for whoever's being spoken about. Then when I bring it on the stage in a concert setting, it's about—not me—it's about the audience, who've invited me into their evening. And given me the opportunity to share what I've discovered.

"So it's a joyful noise. It's a union of two energies; of my own and the audience; which gives rise to this wonderful experience that we all share. That I'm delivering it is kind of secondary, although I'm very honored to be able to do that, and grateful to be able to do that. And I'm having the time of my life. I'm having more fun. This is one of the easiest recordings I've ever made and had the pleasure of being involved in... Since what I do is not who I am, I'm out of the way, so there's really no obstacles in that sense. What's coming up is just a natural flow of ability. That's pretty much it."

Sounds easy. Isn't. But Rankin has a wealth of natural ability that has helped him put across the music his fans have loved for decades. Whether A Song For You brings in droves of new fans isn't the point. Creating the art is the means to a creative end. In the ear of the behearer, as it were.

"I listened to Sinatra and Mathis and Torme. I don't really listen to them, but I've heard them. It's more like the song," he says. "What is done with the song. I never took it apart. I never diagnosed it. I never did a biopsy on anyone or anything in music. What happens is, I have an experience. I have this feeling. I can relate to this, that or the other thing. Let me express my view of it. That's sort of what I do. I'm sort of an organic kind of guy."

Rankin grew up in New York City's Washington Heights neighborhood, which he said was a mix of various Latin cultures. Growing up wasn't easy there, and he found acceptance in music. Specifically, he says, the ice broke in the fourth grade when his teacher, Isabel Pringle, had him sing "Oh Holy Night," for a school Christmas play. After singing it, "she came over and patted me on the head and said, 'Kenneth, that was lovely.' And she sent me on the path of music that I find myself on today. Word for word, that's what happened."

"And I never did homework again," he chuckled. "I became consumed with singing and music. Because I found something, or something found me, where I could get that pat on the head. Everybody wants to be loved. This was my vehicle to that end."

The rest was easy—almost too easy, Rankin acknowledges.

"What happened was, I was 16, and I kept hocking my mother about taking singing lessons. What happened was we went downtown one day to 57th Street, and I auditioned for this guy named Al Seigel for $10. He said, 'OK, I'll teach you.' The next week, he took me over to see a guy named Bobby Brenner at MCA, the agency. By the next week he was at Decca Records and signed me on the spot.

"They gave me a stack of songs and told me to pick four. They didn't tell me what to do. They made one suggestion, 'Itsy Bitsy, Teenie, Weenie, Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.' I said, I don't know about that. I don't like the beach. I don't like seaweed on my feet. Even at that age, I didn't know if I can get behind singing about clothes. So we didn't pick that one. That was the beginning of my recording career."

"What did I know?" he says, bemused by the whole situation. "I was just so happy. Of course after that, I'm walking down the street with my mom, looking at the Cadillacs, saying we're going to get one of those. Big dreams, you know. Expectations. They wind up to be resentments under construction," he chortles at the memory.

Rankin never did study the works of great improvisational singers. Instead, he followed his own inner voice. But in 1960, he met his main musical influence in the person of Laura Nyro, singer-songwriter highly regarded among musicians in New York City who came up in that era. Her career blossomed to national prominence.

"As I look back, she profoundly changed my musical life, and affected my musical life to this day, and always will," he says fondly. "She was probably the one musician that impacted my creativity more than anyone or anything else. She was deep; she was dark; she was light; she was the spectrum of passion. When we met in Greenwich Village, we immediately fell in love with each other, in that linear way. We were so friend-mates. I drew from her so much of how to sing."

"I never studied her. I'm a lazy guy, I don't study. I never did," he laughs. "I'm kind of lazy in that way, but I absorb. And it became part of my soul. And we came from the same place, which is why we were such kindred spirits. We came from that same groove of music and we heard the same things."

Rankin won't say how old he is. "I'm too old to die young. Leave it at that," he says with a warm laugh. "I've gotten older, but I haven't grown up yet." Good enough. He's in a great place, enjoying his art. He's wise enough now to know they aren't one and the same. We should all be so lucky.

"I get the opportunity to live my life and what a really interesting thing, when you get out of the way and just observe your place in it and be glad you're still standing. My big attitude today? I'm glad I survived myself. That's it."

"I'm still viable and still making music. Making people happy. I get these e-mails sometimes at my website that really just fill me with joy and love that I've made a change in people's lives or the songs that I've selected have affected people in such a way that they tell me. There's no better reward, better prize."

Rankin spoke about his new music and his writing with All About Jazz.

All About Jazz (AAJ): I've followed you since the late 70s. The new one seems to have a laid back, a little softer tone, to me. Is that the concept, or is it just where you are now? Is it the song selection?

Kenny Rankin (KR): I've never approached any recording with a concept. I think that, for me, the softness you refer to might be a result of an evolving process as an interpreter. There will be work that I do in the future that might have some more energy. But each song, piece by piece, dictates, pretty much, what's going to happen, relating to what's being said. And it's all about the lyric. I have been accused of straying from the melody. When I'm singing I'm not really thinking, I'm feeling.

I think a mellowing comes with time as well. But for the most part, it's the feeling that the songs give to me. For example, "Spanish Harlem," which is not necessarily a jazz tune. That song speaks to me because that's my neighborhood. That's where I grew up in Washington Heights. And of course you venture into other neighborhoods in this wonderful island called New York City. The roots for that song were deep. The rest, like "A Song For You," you have someone in mind that you want to speak to.

For me as a singer and an interpreter, I get to say things with these songs, and most songs, to someone a lot easier than I would to try and speak to them the words I feel. Songs are just a great way of... [pensive pause]... putting feelings out there.

On stage or on a recording, I get to speak to whoever might be in my mind, in my heart, in my life, in my day, these words that were written by some wonderful composers. Although when I sing it, I don't really have a personal experience in particular, I might have a life experience in general about the song. Like "Where Do You Start," for instance, by Allan and Marilyn Bergman. I have moved in and out of relationships and they've begun and ended for one reason or another and collected things along the way. Boy, that really speaks to it—the sadness and the heartache of these individuals who now must separate their lives. And to some extent, their belongings, which are a reflection of memories, as well as their feelings. I love doing that.

AAJ: You mentioned you don't do concept albums, which is great. Some people do, which is probably the business people directing them in that way. That being said, what do you do when you approach a project? Do you just have some songs that you're feeling at the moment that you'd like to get out?

KR: I can tell you how we did this one. First of all, it's the first time in my career that I've worked with such extraordinarily gifted producers. Tommy LiPuma along with Al Schmitt. In my opinion, these guys are the Scorceses of music. Tommy is a producer- producer and Al is an engineer producer. For someone like myself, it doesn't really get any better than that.

I sat down and we just started going through songs, looking at a lot of songs and listening to things, and titles, and what jumps out at me. They asked me to do the basic arrangements. Tommy and Al said, "Take the guitar and after you pick out your songs, do with them what you want." So I'd pick out songs. The litmus test was—I'd be playing a tune and I'm into the zone of it, and suddenly some of the hairs on my arm would stand up and I'd get a chill. Sometimes Al and Tommy would experience the same thing, and say, "Man, this is good!"

AAJ: One song, in particular, "Round Midnight," had maybe the most different take that I've heard of that song.

KR: Well, the lyric is so morose...[exaggerates] "...it really gets badddd, round midnight." God! I'm goin' out a window [chuckle]. I'm glad I didn't write that, but I know how that feels. I just thought I'd put a little thang to it. A hint of optimism behind this dark image of solitude and isolation and pain and all the feelings of regret and remorse that come with having lost something you think you want, but maybe it's just as well as that it didn't go your way.

I'm just coming stream of consciousness here. I've never really given that much thought. I just thought I'd do something different because the song has been done as it has been done ever since it was written. A really slow, dirge kind of thing. But the message still gets across. It's pretty sad, but there's a subliminal light at the end of the tunnel.

I never really consciously thought about it, I just did it. I grew up in a very urban, Afro- Cuban neighborhood in Washington Heights. Dominican and Cuban and Puerto Rican. My first instrument was conga in the neighborhood. I grew up with Machito, Tito Puente, Cal Tjader, Bobby Montez, all these cats. It's in my roots. The when I discovered Brazilian music, I said "Whoa...I'm there."

"Spanish Harlem" has also got a little thing. When I think of that song, there's only one rose that I think of when I sing that song. And her name is Yvonne. She went to school with my sister. And I've known Yvonne since she was 8 years old. When we were kids, we got married and had three kids of our own. We were kids raising kids. She's Venezuelan and Puerto Rican. The children are beautiful—they're people now. But that's who the rose of Spanish Harlem is to me. So when I sing that song, and put all these different colors in, different arrangement, different approach, different voicings—that's the bottom line, in those days.

AAJ: When I first started listening to you, I'd been listening to Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan and all the greats over the years. I wasn't listening to you as a jazz singer, but I would constantly go, "Wow! There's a really interesting twist on a melody, or harmony," the way you phrase, that I've never heard before. Do you consider yourself a jazz-influenced singer? Duke Ellington didn't like to categorize people and I'm not trying to do that, but what do you feel? Did you listen to people who would rework melodies and harmonies? Because it seems to come so natural to you.

KR: That's the answer. It just comes so natural. I don't think, I feel. I've listened to everybody, not studying them, just turning them on. What I really love to listen to all the time is classical music. I'm not knowledgeable about the classical artists or the composers, all these people, but the sweetness and the passion of strings moving.

Then basically, it's a life experience. I don't know how to define what I do. I've gone into record stores and seen my records in three different places. Pop rock. Folk rock. Jazz. I've always messed with the melodies. I've always heard something other than what was written. I'm not academically trained in music. I don't read music. I've never taken any voice lessons, which was a problem in the beginning because I thought that "Gee whiz. Aren't I wonderful. I'm what I do." That was early on in my teen years into my young adult years. And I didn't know. And I didn't know that I didn't know. Until one day there was this moment of clarity, you might call it, and the sky opened up, and the pressure was off. I was no longer the center of the universe [chuckle], which was wonderful. Because the pressure was off and I began to have the time of my life. So I like to say that what I do is: I sing the story, and I tell the song.

AAJ: I know you play guitar and you play piano. These are things you just picked up on your own?

KR: Right. I started guitar when I was about 24. I was in Las Vegas singing in a group and Don Costa was at the Landmark Hotel at the time writing charts for Sinatra or Mathis at the time, and I was making coffee for Don, who I love. He went on to be a big, big influence in my musical life. I always wanted to do something with him, and we finally did in 1976 [ After the Roses ]. I was hanging there and some fella had come up from Brazil with a recording of Joao Gilberto. Don played classical guitar, and they played this recording of Joao and I said "whoa." I bought a 50-dollar guitar, I quit the band and I went home. My son had been born. We were pregnant with another baby. I just bought a lot of songbooks with photos of the hands in position and taught myself to play the guitar.

I remember I was up at Bell Sound studios, diddling with the guitar and [jazz guitar whiz] Bucky Pizzarelli came over and said, "Here, this is an A Major Seventh, and this is a C Major." And showed me the changes. He gave me a couple of those clues. God bless Bucky. He's still kicking. And his wonderful son, John...And I just took off, learning, isolating. Mathematics was my best subject. So I saw these equations, like this chord is to that chord as that chord is to this chord. Along the way once in a while, there would be someone who would show me a chord that would be up the neck a little bit. I'd take that, and that would sprout. There were little seeds people would give me, and they would just flourish.

Then, on top of that, I had my voice, which I could sail over. And so many times, I would find a song, key against the music, see the chords, and I would find a chord in the neighborhood of the real chord. That's good enough. Then I'd hear something and the melody would just shift enough to suit the chord that I found that was in the neighborhood of the original chord that should have and could have been played.

I've since gone to sticking more to the melody. This is something that Tommy and Al really asked me to focus on. Establish the melody, stay with the melody. OK, fine. But I always slid a little different kind of a chord underneath the real melody. Which gave it a little different hum, or something.

And I've had the time of my life. I've never had it so good, in my work. Doing this work. And bouncing these things off Tommy LiPuma and Al Schmitt—it just doesn't get any better than that, for me.

They've asked me already to start picking songs for the next one and get into them and hone them and learn them. It's a labor of love. It's a good thing.

AAJ: As a writer, do you do it regularly? Just when something hits you?

KR: When I first started playing guitar, I wrote a song called "Haven't We Met," and the lyrics were written by Ruth Bachelar. It was a jazz waltz and I wrote it quickly. I was in a place of discovering chords and I had all these chords and I whipped through them. It just came along and the lyrics were someone else's job.

Moving along, I've written a bunch of tunes. Some of them have stood the test of time. The ones that have were written in about 5 or 10 or 15 minutes. They just showed up. I report what's going on. The songs usually come from one of two places—extreme joy, or some real pain. Anything in the middle, it's work, and I'm not good at that.

I'm not good at—boy meets girl, girl meets boy, boy breaks girl's heart, girl takes revenge, paints boy's car aquamarine. I don't know how to do that. What I do is I just come from my heart and I just speak the truth.

AAJ: So people don't come up to you and say, "OK we'd like an original tune here"

KR: I don't know how to do that. Or I say, "I have a bunch. Try these. If any of these will work for you, good."

AAJ: When you're picking songs, I notice back to the beginning, a lot of the repertoire is what's know as the Great American Songbook, or jazz standards. Some jazz musicians say that the reason that those songs are still played today is because they have the interesting chord structure, changes. There's a lot more to improvise with on Cole Porter or the Gershwins than there is Bruce Springsteen. Do you find that attraction to those standards?

KR: Absolutely. I mean" She was Too Good to Me," a very simple song by Rogers and Hart. [speaks the lyric:] "She was too good to me/How can I get along now. So close she stood to me/Everything seems all wrong now. She would have brought me the sun/Making me smile, that was her fun."

Wow. That's powerful. The hairs on my arms are standing up right now, I swear to God. I get chills and I get a lump in my throat when I think of that.

I'm all for "Born in the USA," and I love Bruce. [Springsteen]. As a matter of fact, some years ago some friends of mine were producing a concert in Colorado at Red Rocks for Bruce Springsteen. And they said they wanted someone to come out, a little classy thing, do about a half hour in front of Bruce Springsteen. I said fine. The money's good. It will be a nice time. Red Rocks, Colorado. Great.

So I get out there, and I'm doing like "Blackbird," and [laughter] half the audience, like they do at those big concerts, was looking for their seats. The other half had found their seats, and they're all in unison going, "Bruuuce, Bruuuuuce!" It was wonderful. [laughter] What a wonderful day that was. Truly. What an experience.

AAJ: Do you look at the future of the music world optimistically? Some jazz musicians are not optimistic. You don't rely on that. You can play a jazz room, but you can be outside it too.

KR: The technology has so changed things for the good and for the band. Expanded things. Broadened things. On the one hand you have digital sampling stuff that gave rise to urban music and the technology that's been utilized in that regard in rap music, in hip-hop. Which is very cool. Ellington said there's two kinds of music, good and bad. Where's the line between? Then it comes down to individual taste. I keep and open mind and an open heart and I listen to whatever comes in. I don't seek it out. I don't try and critique it. I don't try and break it down. What does it do to me?

Technology has given people a lot of opportunities. It's also taken away a lot of opportunities for people that might not go in that direction. In the music business in general, there are radio stations that have been playing the same kind of music for years. I know there's a lot of music being made—and good stuff. Because I hear it in the clubs. But it hasn't been on the airwaves, because it comes down to commercial time and what's the advertisement. And I stop right there. I don't go into that. I love to hear beautiful music. I love to hear rockin' music. I used to clean the house to ZZ Top, Eddie VanHalen. I love that stuff. These guys are good. They got something going on. Dr. John.

Where's the music business going? I've never known the answer to that one. And I kind of like not knowing. It becomes more of an adventure. I've never tried to accommodate or placate or patronize an audience by playing what I "think" they want to hear. I've been so lucky and so blessed to enjoy the work that I've chosen to do and have an audience appreciate that effort. I'm very lucky to be able to say that and experience that.

And I don't take it lightly. The invitation that I get on a daily basis from an audience who've invited me into their evening, I don't take that lightly. That's big stuff. Is it humble? No, it's real, man. It's real stuff.


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