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Kenny Rankin: From the Heart

By Published: June 9, 2009
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] " 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.

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