Fledgling jazz artist Kalen Henry gives fresh and unique voicings to the classics by the unforgettable Nat King Cole. With a new CD called “Not Forgotten,” each track is hand-picked to show her colorful range and innate sense of timing.
The ebullient and sparkly (thanks to the mandolin) rendition of “Straighten Up and Fly Right” is a perfect showcase for Henry’s stylized phrasing. Though “Nature Boy” is still the familiar, mournful classic, hope lives in the subtle trill and bounce of her voice, which is at the same moment bluesy as it is a smidge rockabilly. And through it all, there is a perfect water-like clarity of her voice matching the unusual instrumentation (that mandolin again). Henry’s sweet vocals – doubled, as she harmonizes with herself – swoop in and out of the melody in “Our Love Is Here to Stay.”
Surprises around every corner, this CD has one foot within the Cole repertoire and the other on the threshold of Kalen Henry as the emerging jazz presence.
Do you remember the first time you sang in public?
Music was indeed my first love. It has become one of the many pieces of who I am. I would be quite lost without it in my life.
Despite this deep connection, I was terrified at the concept of performing in front of others as a child. With a loving push from my parents, I eventually joined the choir in middle school. I was immersed into the harmonious world of altos and ended up loving every second of it. Along with several school concerts and performances at local venues, we occasionally had “Show Off Day” for those daring enough to sing a solo for the class. This was the first instance I sang in front of an audience. It was so nerve-racking for me, but once I stood before the class with the first note of Nat King Cole’s “L-O-V-E” on my tongue, a desire to perform surged over me.
People responded very positively to my voice, and so I dared to audition for legitimate choral solos throughout my four years of choir.
In eighth grade, I was granted one of the many solos in our “13 The Musical” medley and I was beyond ecstatic. The anxiety associated with such a privilege and responsibility also reared its ugly head at times, but I never let myself give up such an opportunity. On the night of our spring concert in front of 300 people, I sang those few bars like nobody’s business.
I also had another solo performance in my high school choir, but this time it was alongside my father. My choir decided to host a fundraising event known as “Jazz Night” where people would be treated to an evening of dinner and student-sung jazz standards. My father put together a band of highly-skilled musicians for the event, and we also arranged our own version of Nat King Cole’s songs like “This Can’t Be Love.” That night was also extremely memorable; I overcame my nerves and performed a two-minute song with my father in front of 100 people.
To this day, I consider these solos to be some of the biggest accomplishments of my life.
When did you realize you wanted to do this for your career?
Since I began this project with my father, I have experienced music in a way that most people will never be able to in their lifetime.
I have performed at local venues, attended the 2017 Grammys with The Tierney Sutton Band, engaged in several auditions and singing groups on my college campus, and I can only imagine what the future might hold!
I have also whole-heartedly dedicated myself to academics for the past eight years. I did my best to demonstrate my worth in a community full of well-rounded intellectuals with every challenge, every test, and every essay, and my hard work paid off with an acceptance letter from the University of California, Davis. I’m now pursuing my love for science at a renowned research university, and I’ve even made it on the Dean’s List.
I’m totally committed to balancing my passions for music and science! There is something about music that I’ve never been able to experience through any other subject or medium, and therefore I will never be able to live without it.
Why was Nat King Cole’s music the launching pad for your new CD?
Growing up, the house was filled with all kinds of music, but Nat King Cole is one of those voices that I vividly remember from my childhood. I heard him on the way to school, I heard him throughout the house, and as a child, my father even played with his daughter, Natalie Cole. Early on, I learned the lyrics to a handful of his songs, and I came to associate his soothing voice with “home.”
How do you pay homage to Cole’s music?
My father and I picked ten of Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable” hits to cover in a beautifully unconventional way. Classics like these emanate some of the purest messages about love, heartbreak, and memories, and I wanted to uphold these values through my own personal interpretation of the material.
We sought to transform classic songs from the past into something never heard before, using elements of bluegrass, folk and Americana. These jazz standards come from the American Songbook and I wanted to bring them back to the present with a signature young-sounding voice to provide listeners with a new interpretation of the music.
The cool thing about music is there is never a right or wrong answer— it thrives on subjectivity, and it knows no restraints of time. I strove to respect Nat King Cole’s legendary creations. We did our absolute best to preserve the lyrics and melodies of each song, studied his original treatment of them, and then proceeded to surround those basics with our current musical influences.
You seem to sit comfortably between jazz and blues. How?
My childhood was a marvelous hodgepodge of music. Cat Stevens, Mozart, traditional samba, Ella Fitzgerald, Sting, The Beatles, James Brown, Earth Wind and Fire, Led Zeppelin, and Red Hot Chili Peppers are just a few of the artists my family listened to. These different sounds and instruments intermixed to form a tapestry of music. There was never any competition within the music because such a phenomenon goes beyond the confines of man-made categories— music’s sole purpose, its divine purpose, is to make people feel.
The acoustic guitar accompanying you brings a brightness and a bluesy feel. Intentional?
Our main goal for this project was to create something never heard before. We did our best to respect the original jazzy versions of Nat King Cole’s songs while implementing other styles of music.
On this album we used two acoustic guitars, which add a bluesy feel to the record. This choice was strategically made to suit the unique timbre of my voice and paint the song in an unusual but satisfying color.
How did you choose the songs for this CD?
“Not Forgotten” has been carefully structured to form the arc of a ten-chapter love story to keep things interesting and unique. For each song, I drafted a “chapter description” that delves into the song’s history, overall message and musical foundations. Together, they provide the listener with a greater understanding of our project.
What has been the response so far?
Positive, mixed with a decent amount of “surprise.” People are taken aback by the unique arrangements associated with such famous jazz titles, but I like to think that my music helps broaden their musical perspective.
Where will you perform it?
This music is designed for a small, intimate audience. Because of this, I would prefer to perform “Not Forgotten” at local venues. Additionally, I would consider the music to be more soulful than upbeat, and so I envision it being played in a performing arts center or theater as opposed to a club or festival.
How do you envision developing your voice/career?
I stand before you as an artist in-the-making. I’m always looking to improve myself, and these past few years have allowed me to do so in numerous ways. As I continue to explore the realm of music, I hope to gain an even deeper understanding of music theory, partake even more so in musical creation, and possibly experiment with original material.
What types of ensembles do you prefer to perform with?
I have been exposed to all types of ensembles, ranging from duos to 50+ piece orchestras. I really don’t have a preference as long as I’m performing with people who are just as passionate about the music as me. My hope is to create a meaningful connection between my music and the audience that enhances the overall musical experience.
What’s been the most exciting thing about this CD?
The actual process of recording these ten songs in a studio setting was an incredible experience. Working with renowned musicians who devote their lives to such an art form is quite humbling, and the fact that they helped me create something so special is beyond words. Studio singing has since become one of my favorite things to do because I get to enjoy the professionalism of studio recording and the literal creation of music that goes on behind the glass. I live for those moments of flawlessly created music. And, in this space, I can use my skills of pitch memory and reimagining songs to create unique arrangements.
Thank you for choosing me as an interviewee. I really appreciate you taking the time to listen to my music and learn more about me as an artist!
For more information, visit https://kalenhenry.bandcamp.com/releases.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Kalen Henry.
© Debbie Burke 2018