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Jazz Review

Diversity and Clarity From Kenny Rankin

September 19, 2002|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Kenny Rankin's career has always been somewhat shadowed by the question of categories. What kind of performer is he? Where, in a business obsessed with categories and pigeon-holing, should he be placed?

Some see him as a jazz artist; others as a singer-songwriter; and still others as a guitar-playing, folk-derived pop act. And the fact is--as with the late Eva Cassidy--all those labels apply. On Tuesday night at the Jazz Bakery, Rankin underscored that multi-stylistic perspective with a solo performance in which he sang to the sole accompaniment of his own guitar. Most of the numbers traced to his recently released Verve debut album, "A Song for You," with the addition of a few familiar items from the past--notably his unique reworking of Lennon and McCartney's "Blackbird."

The central element in all the songs--whether he was singing Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields' golden classic, "The Way You Look Tonight," Jerry Leiber and Phil Spector's "Spanish Harlem" or Thelonious Monk and Cootie Williams' " 'Round Midnight"--was the sweet clarity of Rankin's sound. Moving easily from a chesty baritone into seemingly effortless high notes, he invested each with an quality that was infinitely appealing. Add to that a sense of rhythm flowing with buoyant jazz swing.

His guitar playing, a bit stiff in his first two or three numbers, eventually relaxed into a persuasive linkage with his voice, sometimes supporting with rhythmic vamps, sometimes moving in and around his soaring vocal lines.

Explaining that he was performing as a solo act on Tuesday and Thursday and would be joined by a jazz trio for his Friday through Sunday dates at the Bakery, Rankin noted that his Tuesday opening-night audience was hearing his music--and, especially, the songs from the new album--in the blueprint form that eventually led to more fully orchestrated versions.

He was correct in that regard, and there was enormous value in hearing the material in that manner, in the sort of pristine rendering that emerges from the pure interface of voice and solo guitar.

*

Kenny Rankin at the Jazz Bakery, 3233 Helms Ave., Culver City. Shows at 8 and 9:30 p.m. tonight, $20; Friday, Saturday and Sunday, $25. (310) 271-9039.

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