Kenny Rankin: From the Heart

R.J. DeLuke By

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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.



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