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August 12, 2003
“I’m not really a jazz singer,” Kenny Rankin says. “I’m a singer who dabbles in composition and interpretation as a vocalist. I sing a story and I tell the song.”
Rankin brings his interpretive and compositional abilities to the Roper Center for the Performing Arts Thursday night as part of this year’s Jazz Norfolk celebration. His is a “Jazz For Hope” benefit concert, with proceeds going to the Hope House Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides assistance for adults with disabilities.
“I like to play with melodies,” he told me in a recent telephone interview, “but the story is the most important thing to me in any song. The lyric---what is it saying, where does it take me, how does it touch me? When I’m moved emotionally, from identifying with or being the composer of the song, that triggers different aspects of the tonal spectrum which pop up, more emotional than pragmatic, into my interpretation of this image that’s been painted by the words.”
He’s been painting musical images for a long time now. In 1965, he played on Bob Dylan’s landmark album, Bringing It All Back Home, the record that took Dylan from folkie to rock and roller.
“I was recording at Columbia at the time and so was Dylan,” he remembers. “Tom Wilson, a buddy of mine, was producing Dylan and he asked me what I thought about the idea that Dylan wanted to record with an electric guitar. He asked me if I wanted to play on the session.
“I said I’d just started to teach myself how to play guitar and I only know a few chords, but hey, Dylan only knows three or four himself! So I said, what’s it pay, and he said something like 60 bucks a song or an hour, whichever was greater, so I said, ‘OK, I’m there.’
“I played on ‘Maggie’s Farm’ and ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ and a couple of others,” he continues. “It was fun. I played rhythm. He had established himself as Bob Dylan, and we all loved what he did, so it was interesting. Of course, I didn’t realize the enormity that it would bring.”
Rankin’s own first album, Mind Dusters, was released two years later, just in time for the summer of love. It included a cover of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” as well as a song by the then-little known Gordon Lightfoot, but was mostly originals, including “Peaceful,” probably his best known composition. The liner notes were written by Johnny Carson.
Carson was a big fan of Rankin’s, and he appeared often on The Tonight Show from the late ‘60s through the mid ‘70s. He released a series of excellent recordings, establishing himself as one of the finest singer/songwriters of the era. His albums also included memorable interpretations of songs like The Beatles’ “Blackbird” and “Penny Lane,” and he wrapped his feathery tenor around material by Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield and Jimi Hendrix. But the Big Hit eluded him.
His mellow blend of folk and jazz had a sunny, laid back vibe similar to the music coming out of southern California and Marin County at the time. But Rankin was no Californian.
“I’m New York,” he replies when asked about his musical groove. “There are a lot of soft, gentle parts of New York that maybe people are not aware of. I lived in the Washington Heights section of New York City, which was very urban. It’s way up the west side near the George Washington Bridge. Right in that neighborhood is the Cloisters, and that’s a very serene, Gregorian chant-type of music thing.”
In 1976, Rankin recorded his masterful The Kenny Rankin Album with producer Don Costa, a music business legend who had encouraged him when he first started out. Employing a full orchestra and mixing original material with standards like “Here’s That Rainy Day” and “When Sunny Gets Blue,” as well as contemporary pieces like The Rascals’ “Groovin’” and George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” The Kenny Rankin Album was ahead of its time in its musical sweep. He’s very proud of it.
“It was a live recording,” he says. “We didn’t make a record that day, we just went in and recorded music---with sixty strings and my quartet. It’s a far cry from the way it’s done today.”
But Kenny Rankin continues to make great music today. After devoting the 1980s to live performance, he began producing a string of excellent jazz recordings in 1991, receiving positive reviews and building on his well-established reputation as a versatile, multi-talented vocalist.
“The last twelve years, I kind of went into doing standards and didn’t write much,” he explains. “The companies that I recorded for didn’t really want the originals.”
Last year’s A Song For You is a case in point. It is filled with surprisingly fresh and affecting versions of songs from the Gershwin and Harold Arlen songbooks, a vocal take on Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight,” and a sensual stroll through “Spanish Harlem.” He turns Lennon & McCartney’s country jaunt, “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” into a beautiful ballad that brings a new depth of meaning to the lyrics. But the disc received little record company promotion, and was consequently unheard by most of the jazz world.
“It’s like a political campaign metaphorically,” he laughs. “Whoever has the biggest war chest wins.”
Nonetheless, as he approaches his fifth decade in the music business, Kenny Rankin is looking forward enthusiastically.
“Ten or twelve years ago, there was this train that started out of the station. It was driven by Harry Connick and Diana Krall, and all these people started coming out of the woodwork doing standards ad nauseum. I look back and I felt like a stowaway on that train, and I really was not comfortable just doing that. I love the work that I did and I’m very proud of it, but I was kind of recording what they wanted me to do. At this point in my career, in my life, I’m done with that. I’m going to record the music that I’m writing. I’m just going to write the way I used to write and hopefully come up with some good songs.”
On Thursday night, he’ll share songs from throughout his career, as well as some of those new songs. He’ll be alone with his guitar and his music, joined only by our own bass master Jimmy Masters for a couple of tunes.
“I’m a traditional guy,” he says. “I play a classical guitar and I sing, without the aid of technology. I’m making my kind of music.”
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