It was one of those moments a jazzhead dreams about: Sitting in the front row of a cozy New York club and watching a tight‚ talented group stretching the outside of the envelope. The only thing that would have made it better is if there had been more witnesses to my bliss.
The crowd at the Kendra Shank Quartet's first set had been packed to the back of the gorgeous piano bar tucked inside Manhattan's Hotel Kitano. Unfortunately‚ other potential concertgoers must have decided Thursday night was still a school night‚ so there were few people left in the house when Shank led her three partners -- pianist Frank Kimbrough‚ bassist Dean Johnson‚ and drummer Tony Moreno -- out for the closer. Most bands would have decided to mail it in upon seeing the empty seats; happily‚ Shank and her crew went the other way‚ and kicked their exploratory sensibilities up one more notch. No big deal: When you've been working together for 14 years‚ what's one more Trust Fall?
Mind you‚ it doesn't take a lot to put Shank into Deconstruction Mode‚ as she showed during the opening mash-up of her own "Reflections in Blue" and Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies." The melody from the latter tune was a ghostly presence in the former as Moreno worked his kit with mallets and Kimbrough chorded over Shank's sultry vocalizations. Eventually‚ Moreno and Johnson picked up the Berlin classic's time signature‚ bringing an end to Meditation Time… for now. But even though things had gotten (a little) more up-tempo‚ Shank never lost the soft‚ loving quality she'd introduced at the onset.
It's become standard to call any vocalist "an interpreter." In Shank's case‚ it's less about "re-producing the classic" and more about communicating the feelings of a song's protagonist. You could see her living the lyric in Johnny Mandel & Dave Frishberg's "You Are There‚" and she gave Norma Winstone's "A Timeless Place" the longing quality it demands‚ considering the basis for the song is Jimmy Rowles' iconic noir ballad "The Peacocks." But while Shank makes analog interesting again‚ it was technology that took her spoken-word stunner "Resolutions" to the next level‚ as Shank used effects and loops to multiply herself while the trio spun their own hypnotizing tone poem.
Kimbrough is quite familiar with Kitano‚ as he recorded his latest Palmetto release there in 2011. Regardless of the venue‚ Kimbrough's exemplary phrasing makes him the best accessory a jazz vocalist can have nowadays. He and Shank are kindred spirits‚ in that both of them sculpt a solo with a heady mix of precision and inspiration. Moreno had a rhythm and a tool for every occasion: He held the beat on "Blue Skies" with swirling brushwork‚ and he kept tight control on his cymbals during "Resolutions" with sticks that looked like bamboo. Johnson added fast fills and smart counters when he wasn't holding down the floor‚ and his solo on Jeff Johnson's "I'm Never Sure" was right on point.
It all ended way too soon‚ but that doesn't mean it ended quickly. The closer was "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise‚" which is straight out of the Great American Songbook‚ but the band's approach was anything but standard. Shank worked the opening lyric in free form‚ addressing it again and again but never completing it as the trio meditated around her. It was Kimbrough who finally picked up the original as Shank & Moreno coalesced on the time signature‚ and when Johnson came in on the deal‚ Kimbrough went dancing off to FrankWorld‚ making Oscar Hammerstein II's melody both vast and intimate at the same time.
Park Avenue was practically empty as I stepped out into the climate-changed evening. I looked behind me at the boutique hotel‚ and then up at the posh apartment buildings across the way. I knew there were sleeping people behind those dark windows‚ and I'm sure they thought they had good reasons to count sheep‚ but they all missed the sweet experience that is the Kendra Shank Quartet. So even though I knew I wouldn't be as well rested the next day as those sleeping people‚ I smiled‚ knowing that I was one step ahead of all of them.