Although many vocalists pay only lip service to the ideas of “using the voice as an instrument” and the singer “working as part of the group,” on her third CD, Kendra Shank delivers spectacularly on both fronts. Ms. Shank had already set herself apart as a singer who was deeply committed to jazz but unwilling to traffic in the usual jazz singing clichés. What makes Reflections her finest effort yet is an added willingness to open up and expose herself to her listeners.
There is a spare, atmospheric quality to this music. All of the musicians are given a great deal of room to stretch out and several of the songs find Ms. Shank singing for periods with only one or two of the other members of the group. Ms. Shank is a risk taker who ventures fearlessly onto the high wire. She pushes her warm, grainy voice at the top and bottom of its register, but it is precisely when you expect her to veer sharply out of tune that her voice seems to bloom. Her jagged phrasing, willingness to stretch and manipulate time and her refusal to resolve phrases in conventional ways give her singing genuine originality.
Ms. Shank has assembled an extraordinary collection of very challenging material. “Alone Together,” featuring fine work from bassist Dean Johnson, and “This Is New,” given a brisk, modal attack, are relatively seldom-heard standards. Ms. Shank sings an exquisite, haunting version of Duke Ellington’s “Reflections in D” with lyrics by Marjorie and Milt Raskin and introduces Seattle bassist Jeff Johnson’s superb “I’m Never Sure.” Ralph Towner’s “Silence of a Candle” features Ms. Shank’s guitar playing which reflects her roots in folk music. She also delivers a fascinating, percussion driven version of one of Abbey Lincoln’s finest songs, “Throw It Away.” Yet, for all her restless creativity, Ms. Shank also knows when to relax. She doesn’t attempt a hip harmonic transformation of Lennon and McCartney’s “Let It Be.” Instead, she sings the song with such purity and depth of feeling that it becomes an unexpectedly moving prayer of hope. “A Timeless Place” may, however, be the most extraordinary performance on the CD. Ms. Shank smoothly negotiates Jimmy Rowles’ labyrinthine melody while at the same time bringing genuine emotion to Norma Winstone’s somewhat abstract lyrics. Pianist Frank Kimbrough’s solo here and his beautiful, soulful playing throughout the album also deserve special attention.
On Reflections Kendra Shank has created jazz filled with heart and intelligence that lingers in the mind long after you’ve finished listening. With this recording Ms. Shank also stakes her claim to be taken seriously as one of the most interesting, creative and promising jazz singers of her generation.
Personnel: Kendra Shank: vocals, acoustic guitar; Frank Kimbrough: piano; Dean Johnson: bass; Tony Moreno: drums and percussion.