There are a million jazz stories in the naked city, and New York Conversations captures some of the most revelatory ones. An extraordinary encounter between the supremely inventive vocalist Kendra Shank
and the brilliant guitarist John Stowell
, a player with a beautiful touch and rarified harmonic vocabulary who specializes in high-wire duo projects, the album came together quickly, with a minimum of planning. While Shank and Stowell’s musical friendship dates back more than two decades, New York Conversations is their first recording together, and they seized the opportunity to investigate new sonic territory. Exploring original compositions, standards, and songs generated spontaneously in the studio, the duo creates a series of arresting soundscapes, with Shank contributing textures and sonic design via live looping and effects that she triggered as the music unfolded in the studio. Shank and Stowell are performing widely together in conjunction with the April 8, 2014 release of New York Conversations on TCB – The Montreux Jazz Label, distributed in North America by Allegro (see the tour dates at the end of this posting).
“This CD has a lot of firsts,” Shank says. “It has a lot more improvisation and scatting than any of my previous albums. And it’s the first time I’ve documented live looping. I've always approached music as painting with sound, and the looper and effects give me an extended palette for doing this, and for creating instrumentally. I'm insatiably curious and always open to new explorations in music.”
The album opens with a haunting, atmospheric version of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” that seems to suggest storm clouds hovering out on the horizon. The duo is equally effective reinventing “My Romance.” Usually treated as a soaring declaration, the Rodgers and Hart gem opens with an improvised scat/guitar passage that evokes an inner journey, with Shank displaying her liquid quicksilver tone in every register.
On the spontaneous creations, like the lapidary onomatopoetic “Za-Zoh,” Shank and Stowell display playful derring-do, fully exploiting the space and freedom afforded by the duo format. In much the same way, “Rush Hour” affectionately evokes the hustle and bustle of Gotham, then segues into the Stowell composition New York Conversations" with Shank's lyric paying tribute the city's diverse boroughs. WalkTalk" gets its title from the walking bass loop Shank improvises using an octaver pedal, over which a game of scat tag unfolds as she employs an extended array of sounds and growls in dialogue with Stowell's chiming notes and fleet vocal lines.
“We do really value space and conversation,” Stowell says. “Even when getting dense and crazy, that’s our guiding aesthetic. Kendra can manipulate and create electronic sounds in real time in a truly musical way. I haven’t worked with other singers who do that.”
Shank touches on her folk music roots with a striking medley of Woody Guthrie’s “Hard Travelin'” and the traditional lament “Motherless Child” that speaks to a soul’s desolation. The sparse and forbidding arrangement is improvised over a composed loop of multi-voiced harmony and overtone singing. Lushly melodic on pianist/composer Fred Hersch and British jazz singer Norma Winstone’s “Songs & Lullabies,” they offer a glorious hat tip to another remarkable duo.
Shank is also a gifted lyricist, contributing lyrics to two Stowell compositions. While she’s improvised words and music in the studio with her band, and once collaborated with vibraphonist Joe Locke, who set her poem “Wish” to music, this project is the first time she’s written lyrics for instrumental tunes. In the case of “Ghost,” she tells the true story of a spectral encounter on the night she learned that a close friend had taken his own life. It’s an electrifying dialogue with Shank’s ethereal and beguiling vocals weaving through the earthy bass notes Stowell lays down like bread crumbs leading out of the darkness. The melody is in mixed meter yet flows organically, as is also the case on Stowell's Throop," which features his coloristic use of a variety of acoustic and electric guitars, including fretless.
The album closes with two brief tracks. Rather than ending with the emotionally wrenching rendition of “I’ll Be Seeing You,” they transition seamlessly into a teasing improvisation “Glad Mango” that could have easily turned into a full excursion, but that ends almost before it begins. Like the seasoned pros that they are, Shank and Stowell leave listeners primed for more.
Jazz musicians don’t need extensive history to connect this deeply, but Shank and Stowell’s friendship dates almost to the start of her jazz journey. They first met in 1990 when she was studying with vocal pioneer Jay Clayton in Seattle. A major influence, it was Clayton who first introduced Shank to the use of electronics. Stowell invited Shank to sit in on a gig in Portland, where he still lives, which led to many years of hanging out and playing together around the Pacific Northwest.
“ John is such a prince, and very inclusive of everyone,” Shank says. “I was playing guitar at the time and he gave me a guitar lesson and became sort of a mentor. I’d go down to Portland and he’d come up to Seattle to play. During that time he introduced me to Nancy King, who became a huge influence. I was soaking up everything like a sponge. Everything wowed and amazed me. I’m still a little that way.”
Their paths diverged when Shank moved to New York in 1997, and for several years they were in touch only intermittently. But over the past decade, Stowell has often joined Shank at her monthly gig at the 55 Bar, her home base in New York. As Stowell writes in the album’s liner notes, the opportunity to record came up when an old friend with a studio offered him some free time, but they didn’t set out with the intention of creating an album. For Shank in particular, the first session took place at a creative crossroads.
After several years of using a looper for improvisational exercises at home, she had tried to incorporate the device into her celebrated quartet with pianist Frank Kimbrough, bassist Dean Johnson, and drummer Tony Moreno. Unsatisfied with the results, she was about to abandon the electronics but “when John invited me to do this session he said bring the looper,” she recalls. “The duo context turned out to be the perfect setting. It’s spacious with no bass and drums, so I can fill some of those roles. Part of what makes it work is that John is so amazing. I’ll create a motif and he’ll find a way to harmonize with it.”
About Kendra Shank and John Stowell
Kendra Shank’s translucent tone and adventurous spirit have made her one of jazz’s most esteemed vocalists, hailed by the New York Times as a “superbly skilled vocalist,” of “effervescence, depth,” and “integrity.” Born in California to a playwright father and actress mother, she started acting in plays at age 5, picked up the guitar at 13, and at 19 began her music career playing in Parisian subways and sidewalk cafés. While she started as a guitarist and folk/pop singer/songwriter, after several years on the West Coast folk music circuit she experienced an epiphany listening to Billie Holiday and decided to pursue jazz.
In 1989 Shank began studying jazz in Seattle while keeping dual residency in Paris, where she gigged in jazz clubs. Her jazz career blossomed quickly and in 1991 Bob Dorough hired her as a vocalist-guitarist-percussionist for a West Coast tour. She soon caught the attention of jazz legend Shirley Horn, who invited Shank to perform as her guest at the Village Vanguard and ended up co-producing her critically acclaimed 1994 debut Afterglow (Mapleshade) featuring pianist Larry Willis and saxophonist Gary Bartz. Shank followed up with two albums for Jazz Focus Records, 1998’s Wish, and 2000’s Reflections, which introduced her current working band, the Kendra Shank Quartet, with Kimbrough, Johnson and Moreno. With her luscious sound, lithe phrasing and keen ability to interact with her bandmates, she earned superlative plaudits from critics like the Boston Globe’s Bob Blumenthal, who wrote “this vocalist makes lyrics believable, invents like an instrumentalist, and has an ear second to none for little-known and unknown tunes.”
The quartet's groundbreaking 2007 release, A Spirit Free: Abbey Lincoln Songbook (Challenge Records) received numerous Best of the Year citations and charted on jazz radio. Reed expert Billy Drewes and guitarist Ben Monder guested on this and KSQ's subsequent 2009 release Mosaic (Challenge Records). In addition to her recordings as a leader, Shank performed as guest guitarist on Abbey Lincoln's 2000 CD Over The Years (Verve), sang vocalise lines on Peter Leitch's 2000 CD Blues On the Corner (Reservoir), and has performed with a host of renowned artists, including Fred Hersch, Kenny Werner, Geoffrey Keezer, Jay Clayton, Bud Shank, Steve Wilson, Ben Allison, Victor Lewis, Billy Hart, and Matt Wilson. She has headlined at major clubs and festivals across the U.S. and in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and Canada, with NPR appearances on Jazz Set and Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz.
While Shank has thrived in New York City, John Stowell has continued to use Portland as a base for his international wanderings. He spent his formative years in the early 1970s studying with guitarist Linc Chamberland and pianist John Mehegan. By the time he met bass virtuoso David Friesen in New York City in the mid-1970s, he was well prepared to dive into their unprecedented duo. They toured and recorded prolifically for seven years.
In 1983, Stowell and Friesen joined flutist Paul Horn and his son, drummer Robin Horn, for a historic tour of the Soviet Union. This was the first time in 40 years that an American jazz group had been invited to perform publicly in the USSR. Stowell returned to Russia in 1993, 1995, and 1998, playing in numerous cities. He continues to tour, record and teach internationally, and is also a widely published writer who has contributed to magazines such as Downbeat, Guitar Player, Canadian Musician, Germany’s Soundcheck, and Italy’s Guitar Club.
One of jazz’s true road warriors, Stowell has cultivated a vast network of friends and colleagues through his work as a player and teacher. “I fell into this with Friesen in the 70s,” he says. “You make one contact at a time. Go some place and meet someone else there, expanding a web of friends around Europe, now South America. I’ll come back from a month on the road with five new contacts. You have to cultivate a salesman mentality, and not be afraid of rejection. Every trip starts with one little gig some place.”
In many ways, the relationship with Friesen also provided Stowell with an invaluable creative template. He’s recorded in a wide array of small group settings, including his cooperative trio Scenes with bassist Jeff Johnson and drummer John Bishop. But Stowell has distinguished himself as a singularly sympathetic duo partner via recordings with Kelley Shannon, Chris Champion, Don Latarski, Rob Davis, Christopher Woitach, Mike Pardew, Rick Helzer, Cheryl Hodge, and most recently saxophone legend Dave Liebman on Blue Rose (Origin).
Over the years he’s collaborated with numerous jazz giants, including Milt Jackson, Lionel Hampton, Art Farmer, Conte Candoli, Herb Ellis, Bill Watrous, Mundell Lowe, George Cables, Billy Higgins, Billy Hart, Mike Zilber, and Tom Harrell, among many others. The duo with Shank adds a thrilling new chapter to Stowell’s discography, marking the recording debut of a creative partnership as rife with possibility and alive to beauty as any in his past.
“We’re walking down this path where anything can happen,” Shank says. “That’s what I love about improvisation; it’s a constantly unfolding discovery.”
2014 TOUR DATES
- April 10 - Seattle, WA: Seattle Art Museum
- April 11 - Talent, OR: Paschal Winery
- April 12 - Sebastopol, CA: Shelton House Concert
- April 13 - San Francisco, CA: Chez Hanny
- April 17 - Santa Cruz, CA: Kuumbwa Jazz Center
- April 19 - Carlsbad, CA: Museum of Making Music
- April 23 - San Jose, CA: Fairmont San Jose Hotel
- April 25 - Portland, OR: venue TBA
- April 26 - Olympia, WA: Traditions Cafe
- April 27 - Bellingham, WA: Bellingham Arts Academy for Youth
- May 4 - Brooklyn, NY: Roulette
- May 8 - Marlboro, NY: The Falcon
- May 9 - Albany, NY: Venue TBA
Additional dates to be announced.