Starting with bold, decisive intervals falling down the scale and punctuated subtly by drums, the title song of Kenny Shanker’s new CD “The Witching Hour” opens to a wide and expressive solo where Kenny swings. The man’s not afraid of exploring his full range. His skilled approach to the upper and lower registers alike demonstrates a symbiosis with (and affection for) his alto.
“Cake Batter” on the same CD sure is yummy, starting slow (again, jumping the intervals), then the cook gets stirring. Singing through the heart of his sax, Kenny uses melodic falls with ease, then gives the floor to the guitarist, who plucks a mellow story and takes us down a sunny road. At Kenny’s next entrance, he echoes the sweetness of the guitar and things pick up in tempo and syncopation, climaxing with a flurry of notes, statements of escalating tension. The piano here is brilliant, taking Kenny’s lead and riffing off on his own. Next: reiteration of the theme, and Kenny brings us back to earth. The track “Spring Flowers” hits it with a “Take Five”-reminiscent rhythm and adds a layer of Kenny on top: smoothly telling you what’s on his mind with easy-to-bop-to notes. This is one cool-cat body of work…from Wise Cat Records.
With this CD, Kenny proves he is versatile, flexible and supple, and his ace musicians know how to captivate listeners.
What was the “aha” moment when it was clear you’d be involved in music for a career?
I have always loved music and I knew I was going to be a musician since I was a little kid. There was never really any question in my mind.
How has your sound evolved from your debut album in 2011 to 2014’s CD “Action City”?
I feel like I’ve improved in every area since my first recording. My writing, my playing and my entire understanding of music has gotten much deeper. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with many wonderful musicians and to learn from them. Also, just living life and growing as a person makes me a much better musician. The process never ends and I still have so much to learn. It doesn’t matter how many hours I practice or how many books I read. There will always be more to learn.
What inspired “Action City” and what is your favorite track?
The music is inspired by the people, places and experiences of my time in New York City. I don’t really have a favorite track. I spent so much time working on all of them and they all are special to me in some way.
“Punch” is the name of the restaurant where I had my first date with my wife. I wrote “Midnight” when I got home from the funeral of a friend. I don’t think it’s so much of a sad song but it definitely conveys that mix of emotions from missing my friend to being grateful for knowing him in the first place. “Riverbank” is the park right next to my apartment and “Snow Paws” was written for my cat, Murphy. All the songs contain some small part of myself.
Talk about your ensemble.
The band on “Action City” and “The Witching Hour” is my core group. We are all close friends and we love playing together. The guys in the band: Mike Eckroth, Daisuke Abe, Yoshi Waki, and Brian Fishler, are all amazing.
Your drummer in the promo video said he feels as if the music were written specifically for him and his style. How do you keep an ear out to write to people’s strengths?
The music is indeed specifically written for this group. When I’m writing, I try to imagine what the songs will sound like with these guys playing them.
You thrive on variety, it seems- compositionally, songs with fast runs, then beautifully lyrical songs, and so on. What do you like about the juxtaposition of these styles?
I definitely enjoy having a variety of styles on my recordings. My favorite recordings growing up were often that way. I love that music gives me the ability to tell many different stories and to communicate a wide range of emotions to the listener. Certainly, it is fun to change the feeling from song to song. But I also like to incorporate multiple styles of music into the same song. It’s just something that comes naturally because I listen to so many different genres of music and all that music is just floating around in my head all the time. It gets mixed together when I write.
What challenges do jazz artists living in NYC face? How do you deal with the full playing field – the competition?
I never really think about music as a competition. My fellow musicians are my friends and colleagues, and we generally help each other out whenever we get the opportunity. We recommend each other for gigs and we share our resources with each other. I think it’s great being a jazz musician in NYC. There is always an abundance of great music to check out. Being a professional musician of any kind can be challenging, but in my case, I can’t imagine my life any other way.
Your favorite classical composers and why?
There are so many! Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, Edward Elgar, Howard Hanson, and way too many others to list. The music is so beautiful, it is beyond description. I probably listen to classical more than any other genre of music, but I love every style.
Your favorite jazz artists (alive or passed)?
There are so many wonderful jazz artists that have inspired me over the years. I’ll try to keep this list as short as I can. Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Cedar Walton, McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, Lester Young, Dexter Gordon, Ella Fitzgerald, Tom Harrell, Dick Oatts, Bob Berg, Michael Brecker, Paul Desmond, Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, Sonny Stitt, Sonny Rollins, Keith Jarrett, Dann Zinn, and far too many others to mention.
Favorite venue in NYC?
I think my favorite venue is probably Dizzy’s Club. It’s a really beautiful space. For classical, of course Carnegie Hall is amazing.
What specifically do you like about teaching and what do students struggle most with?
I love pretty much everything about teaching. I’ve had so many awesome students over the years. Many of them have gone on to become professional musicians or music educators and that is always so nice to see.
I don’t find there are too many struggles as long as things are fun and as long as the students understand why they are doing whatever it is they are doing. Practicing long tones and technical exercises may not sound very exciting, and that can be a challenge, but once students see the benefits of practicing, they want to do it as much as possible because it allows them to have a lot more fun when they are playing their instruments.
Favorite festival and why?
I’ve always enjoyed the Monterey Jazz Festival. There are always tons of great players there and they do some outstanding educational outreach.
Favorite master class ever?
Probably Bob Berg, mostly because I was such a big fan of his at the time. After it was over, he spent several hours just talking to me one on one and answering all my questions. He didn’t have to do any of that. He was probably tired and just wanted to go home. But he was so kind to me and gave me tons of great tips. I was devastated when he died. He seemed like such a great person.
Where have you toured and where would you most like to tour?
I have been fortunate to tour all over the world with different groups. Some of my favorite places were Japan, Greece, and South America. I eventually would love to go everywhere I haven’t been. It would be nice to see more of Europe.
Where do you think live jazz is going: growing or not?
I think live jazz is always going to be an important part of our culture and will always have an audience. Jazz education in the schools is a big part of that. Future generations need to learn about the music to keep it growing and thriving. If schools cut back too much on their music programs, that could make it challenging, but I always like to stay positive about these things.
Best way to get people out to the clubs?
From everything I’ve seen, most people enjoy watching live jazz once they give it a chance. I always try to be mindful of the audience and keep them engaged in some way. There is no need to water down the music itself, but it doesn’t hurt to do little things like say a few words about the music or to thank people for coming. And when people come up to talk after a concert, I never dismiss anyone no matter how tired I am. I want people to have a good experience and to want to come back.
What were the mechanics of putting together your own record label, Wise Cat Records, and why did you go out on your own?
I have always wanted to have my own record label that I could use as a platform to put out music that I am passionate about. I run across so much wonderful music all the time and my record label gives me the opportunity to bring some of that music to a wider audience.
It is still very early for this label (as of 2017) and it has a long way to go before it is fully operational, but I already have several great recordings ready for release in the coming year. My wife and I do most of the work, but I also have a team that I have been assembling to help with social media and publicity. It has been a lot of work putting everything together, and like I said before, it is going to take a long time to get it all where I’d like it to be, but I’m very confident that in the next several years, I’ll be releasing some phenomenal recordings and it’ll get a positive reputation in the jazz community.
Even though it’s brand new, what have you learned so far that surprised you vis-a-vis your own label?
Things are going mostly how I expected. It will take some time for it to form its own identity and for people to find out about it, but I think everything starts out that way. The only surprising thing so far is how much I enjoy being part of this side of the business. It is incredibly rewarding. Time will tell how this will all turn out, but I’m very optimistic.
What inspired the name of your newest CD “The Witching Hour”?
“The Witching Hour” has to do with my favorite time of night. It is in those wee small hours that I do almost all of my creative work. Most of the music on this CD was written in the middle of the night.
Talk about the recording, production and marketing highlights of this album.
I recorded at Big Orange Sheep Recording Studio in Brooklyn, NY. I love that place. It was the first time I recorded there but I’m eager to go back again for future projects. My good friend, Matt Blostein, did most of the post-production and he is the absolute best person to work with. He also mixed and mastered my previous recording, “Action City.” Matt takes the time to listen to all my crazy ideas and always makes everything sound incredible.
What is your favorite track and why?
I always have a tough time picking favorites. They are all so different. But I’ll pick three of them that I like for different reasons. I wrote “Siobhan” for my wife and I’m really happy with how it came out. There are lots of little subtle things going on in that one including some guest artists and some unusual instrumentation.
“Spin” is a song in 7/4 that blends several genres together. The chords over the very beginning of the melody are loosely based on a Beatles song. It definitely has a pop sensibility about it, but it feels more like jazz to me.
“Saturday, 2 AM’’ is one of the first songs I ever wrote and I completely forgot about it until I accidentally stumbled upon the sheet music when I was cleaning my room one day. I wasn’t planning on recording it but I had some extra time on the recording session so I figured I’d give it a shot. I’m very glad that I did, because I think it’s one of the strongest songs on the album. The group played so beautifully on it.
Whose head did you have in mind with “Bobblehead”?
“Bobblehead” was written for my cat, Mushie. He bobbles his little head up and down when he is about to pounce. Mushie is the coolest cat you’ve ever seen and he is also the founder of my record label, Wise Cat Records. He seemed quite pleased when I played the song for him.
What melodic, chordal or rhythmic challenges did you provide for your band members in this album?
There were some very challenging songs on here, although that was completely unintentional. Sometimes I’ll write something and I’ll realize later on that it’s virtually impossible to play. I never like for anything to SOUND difficult. I prefer for music to be complex but to sound simple.
The hardest one to play was probably “Cat Island.” The piano and bass parts are extremely difficult. They don’t sound that hard, but playing them is a different story. There are some tricky poly-rhythms going on. “Lyra” is also pretty challenging to read through, but the band is so good, they can play anything.
Other comments about the CD?
“The Witching Hour” was so much fun for me to work on and I’m very happy with how everything came out. I hope some of the joy that I had in creating it comes across to the listener and I hope people enjoy the music.
Plans for the rest of 2017?
2017 is rapidly coming to a close but I’m working on a few projects that will be ready for release in early 2018.
I have several fun projects I’m working on right now. I’m going into the studio in January with a collaborative group called Coalescence. Everyone brings in their own original compositions and arrangements, and we all work on every aspect of the project together. It’s with my regular working band of Mike Eckroth, Yoshi Waki, and Brian Fishler. All of those guys are so talented and it’s such a joy to work with them.
I’m also about to release a recording that I produced for my good friend, Lois Bruno. She is an awesome vocalist and I’m very happy with the way the recording sounds. There are a few other records I’m getting ready to put out in 2018 on my label, Wise Cat Records. And I’m already putting some music together for my next solo album, but that might not be out for a little while with all the other things I’ve got coming up.
I cannot express strongly enough how important music has been in my life. I want to do everything in my power to help to bring the joy of music to as many people as possible through teaching, playing live music and making recordings.
For more information, visit www.kennyshanker.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Kenny Shanker.
(c) Debbie Burke 2017