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Kenny Rankin: From the Heart

By Published: June 9, 2009
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.

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