Once, maybe twice in a generation, a singer enters the world of jazz and captivates the genre so dominated by jazz instrumentalists. There are qualities in the voice, delivery, the exquisite phrasing, and inexhaustible ability to deliver a narrative in such a way that expresses the jazz and blues tradition in a special and personal way. Johnaye Kendrick
is one of those singers. Upon graduating from the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, then sequestered at Loyola University in New Orleans, Kendrick was hired by trumpeter Nicholas Payton
, who remarked, "Johnaye has the potential to be a vocalist of the highest order, the likes of which we have seen seldom since the grande dames of the golden era of jazz roamed the earth. She's got it
Kendrick may be a singer, but she is as well an instrumentalist of the highest order. I am not referring to her expertise in playing harmonium, or any other musical instrument. I am referring to her use of the human voice to not only express a compelling and heart felt narrative, but as well to evoke the same emotions in a listener as would a trumpeter such as Payton, or any elite instrumentalist in jazz you can name. With her sophomore release Flying
(Johnygirl, 2018), she advances that faith and belief in her marvelous talents with an album of beautifully crafted originals and captivating interpretations of jazz classics. Kendrick's first release Here
(Johnygirl, 2014), opened a lot of eyes and ears in the international jazz community with her amazing range, eloquent delivery, and poetic compositions. Flying
not only embellishes and expounds on that effort, but takes a leap forward, resulting in a unique, passionate jazz record that should be heard on jazz radio airwaves for generations to come.
As on Here
, Kendrick employs transcendent talent Dawn Clement
on piano and keyboards, banking on a personal and musical relationship built as colleagues at the prestigious Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. Bassist Chris Symer
, and drummer D’Vonne Lewis
, two stalwarts on the Seattle scene add the perfect compliment to the eclectic pair, creating a quartet that fits snugly together, in perfect harmony.
It is hard to imagine another artist singing Kendrick's originals. The lyrics are so personal, and so richly delivered, it is as if the listener is reading a very personal letter held close to the heart from a dear friend or lover. The exquisite melodies, and accompanying harmonies tend to make one believe they will be interpreted by jazz instrumentalists, as has been witnessed by Seattle audiences during live performances. Trumpeter Thomas Marriott
for one, has delved into Kendrick's insular, harmonic world.
I am reticent to some degree to quote the poetry of her lyrics. Surely a listener's own interpretation creates imagery that is individual and personal. On the opener, Kendrick's "Never You Mind," she states, "They push you, they pull you, don't even know how much you can bear. Though they tell you that they rule you, never you mind." While the artist may have her own meaning to convey, the listener can interpret it in a myriad of directions. What is constant however, is the sheer musicality of the voice, and the thoughtful support of the musicians creating the harmonic palette for the artist to move in and out of creatively.
"You Two" brings an entirely different experience to the listener. Part of the reason Kendrick isn't better known in the international jazz community is her dedication to her twin daughters. It is extremely difficult to be a mother to twins, a professor at an esteemed institution, and a recording and touring artist. Kendrick somehow turns that circle of life into a compelling and moving narrative. At one point in the song, she states, " I don't know the words in your hearts, but I want to, I need to," following with, "And my loves, if the time should come, I'd die for you, because I made you, and I love you." The tune ending with the laughter of her daughters brings tears to your eyes, tears of joy, of loving recognition.
Kendrick's choices of standards to cover are interesting in both her approach to interpretation, and the actual choices themselves. Jimmy Van Heusen's classic "It Could Happen to You" is beautifully interpreted in a trio with Symer and Lewis. Kendrick's scat solo is reminiscent of Dexter Gordon's approach to his tune "Fried Bananas," a contrafact based on the Van Heusen standard.
It seems impossible that a modern vocalist could offer a rendition of Ray Noble's "The Very Thought of You" as lush and beautiful as the time honored interpretation by Billie Holiday. Very evident on this track is the perfectly matched interplay between Kendrick and pianist Clement. Clement whose brilliant recent release of duos, Tandem
(Origin, 2018) includes a duet with Kendrick, possesses a rare sense of musicality that also dwells in the soul of her partner. Sensing intuitively the improvisational tendencies of her friend and colleague, Clement offers a stunning, physical solo, and embellishes Kendrick's soaring, octave shattering approach to vocals and melodic improvisation. It reminds the listener that all other elements aside, music is essentially about beauty, and our receptiveness to its vulnerabilities.
The Disney standard "I've Got No Strings On Me" is interpreted like it never has been before, notable from the start with Symer's bass intro, joined by Clement's electric keyboard, and Lewis' intricate coloring. It is as if the standard from "Pinocchio" was written for Kendrick personally.
It is a rare find in the annals of modern jazz, to find a singer who qualifies to be termed a vocal artist in the true sense of the word. In the case of Kendrick, that encompasses not only her prowess utilizing the amazing instrument that is her voice and vocal stylings, but her ability to pen memorable tunes. There is tremendous courage in her original compositions, exposing the artist's vulnerability in an honest and personal way. Her music is something very present, and very important. It draws from the past of the rich and colorful history of the jazz tradition, and portends to be something that will stand the test of time. Stating this notion to perfection, she says, "I just try to take all of that and do my best with it, and create the best representation of myself, my people, the times, it's just a little gift I put down, that I hope someone picks up and appreciates."