In a remarkable recording career that spans three and a half decades, Kenny Rankin has established an impressive set of creative credentials, as an insightful songwriter, a distinctive guitarist and, above all, a world-class singer possessing an uncanny ability to cut straight to a song's emotional heart.
It's the latter aspect of Rankin's multifaceted talent that's spotlighted on his Verve debut, "A Song for You" on which the veteran stylist applies his singular interpretive skills to an artfully assembled set of songs drawn from a variety of sources, with sublimely sympathetic instrumental support from some of music's most respected players. The resulting album, produced by veteran studio pros Tommy LiPuma and Al Schmitt, stands as something of a milestone in Rankin's already impressive catalogue.
While A Song For You marks the start of an exciting new phase of Kenny Rankin's musical life, it also embodies the same qualities of organic craftsmanship and emotional honesty that have long endeared him to pop and jazz listeners alike. The artist consistently draws fundamental human truths from vintage romantic classics like Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields' "The Way You Look Tonight," Rodgers and Hart's "She Was Too Good to Me" and George and Ira Gershwin's "Love Walked In," as well as such pop standards as Jerry Lieber and Phil Spector's "Spanish Harlem," the Lennon/McCartney chestnut "I've Just Seen A Face" and the Leon Russell-penned title track.
Rankin's genre-bending adventurousness is further demonstrated by an affecting interpretation of the Thelonious Monk jazz standard "'Round Midnight," and a poignant take on the heartbreaking "Where Do You Start," written by Johnny Mandel in collaboration with Alan and Marilyn Bergman.
Throughout A Song for You, Rankin's deeply felt performances are enhanced by subtly nuanced support from a remarkably simpatico studio quartet comprised of David Spinozza (acoustic and electric guitars), Christian McBride (bass), Leon Pendarvis (keyboards) and Lewis Nash (drums). The album also features guest appearances by Roy Hargrove (trumpet), Chris Potter (tenor sax) and Russell Malone (guitar), and seven of the songs feature evocative orchestrations by either Alan Broadbent or John Beasley.
While his supple, pristine tenor has earned him status as a singer's singer, Rankin's songwriting talents have been widely recognized by his peers. For example, his "In the Name of Love" inspired a memorable version by Peggy Lee, while his "Haven't We Met" has been cut by a number of jazz and pop artists including Carmen McRae and Mel Torme. Other Rankin compositions have been covered by a diverse assortment of artists.
Growing up in the multicultural hotbed of New York's Washington Heights neighborhood, he absorbed a broad array of musical influences, from AfroCuban to Top 40 to Jazz to Brazilian. But he traces his emergence as a performer to a specific childhood epiphany. "I was in the fourth grade and sang 'O Holy Night' in a Christmas play," he recalls. "My teacher, Miss Isabel Pringle, came over to me and patted me on the head and said 'Kenneth, that was lovely.' She set me on the path in music that I find myself on today."
As a teenager, the budding artist signed with Decca Records and released a handful of singles. A few years later, he signed with Columbia Records, and found himself playing guitar on Bob Dylan's landmark 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home. Not long after, he performed on The Tonight Show, whose host Johnny Carson became such a fan that Kenny was ultimately invited to appear on the show more than 20 times. Carson even contributed liner notes to Rankin's 1967 debut LP Mind Dusters, which introduced his much-covered pop standard "Peaceful." That album's mix of original tunes and outside material would continue to yield rewarding results on such subsequent releases as Family, Like a Seed, and Inside.
Rankin's 1975 album Silver Morning featured a popular reworking of The Beatles' "Blackbird" that so impressed Paul McCartney that he asked Rankin to represent himself and John Lennon when they were inducted into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame. 1976's much-acclaimed The Kenny Rankin Album was recorded live in the studio, and teamed the singer with a 60-piece orchestra arranged and conducted by the legendary Don Costa to create what many now consider the first contemporary "torch" album; Rankin and Costa continued their collaboration on 1980's After the Roses.
Through much of the 1980s, Rankin largely concentrated on the live stage, increasingly emphasizing pop and jazz standards using jazz accompaniment. He ended a long break from recording in 1995 with a pair of albums: Professional Dreamer, a collection of standards, and the Brazilian-flavored Here In My Heart, both for the Private Music label.
Despite his extensive recording history, Rankin still found new challenges in making A Song for You. "It was really a collaboration and a labor of love," he says. "I picked the songs with Tommy and Al, and then they asked me to create the basic arrangements. Before we laid down each track, I'd go in with my guitar and play the song, just to establish the groove and the vibe of each song. The players always got it and always understood exactly what I was trying to convey. In that respect, it was one of the easiest records I've ever made, because the level of excellence was such that I had no reason to feel any concern about anybody else's ability to deliver the goods."
However one may attempt to pigeonhole Kenny Rankin-as jazz vocalist, pop artist or introspective singer/songwriter-the openhearted emotional forthrightness of his singing renders such classifications irrelevant. "My interpretation of the songs is purely emotional," he explains. "We've all experienced disappointment and heartache, and that's what I draw upon. When I sing 'A Song for You' and 'Where Do You Start?' or 'She Was Too Good to Me,' I'm really hurting for the people in the song. I never change lyrics, because when I select a song it's usually because of how the lyric impacts me. I've been accused of straying from the melody, but when I sing I'm feeling, not thinking."
He also seems rejuvenated by the experience of making A Song for You. "I haven't felt this kind of enthusiasm in a long, long time," he states. "When I started, I was very young and felt like I was the center of the universe. But over the years I've come to understand that it's not about me, it's about the work, and about having the opportunity to do good work. If you do anything for any length of time, it's inevitable that you're gonna have ups and downs. You make mistakes and follow paths that aren't productive, but you learn from that.
"I just feel privileged that I've been allowed to continue in my craft, and I've been encouraged by all the positive feedback I've gotten from people over the years," he concludes. "When someone tells you a song changed their life, or inspired them to look at things in a slightly different way, well, you can't ask for a better reward than that."
Miss Pringle would be proud.
A Song for You [314 589 540-2] available on CD August 13, 2002.