A year or so ago, when New York Voices alto Lauren Kinhan began contemplating her fourth solo release, she was sure of one thing: It would be her first album devoted entirely to standards. How, though, to focus the repertoire? Kinhan grew up in Phoenix, Ariz., where she spent hours listening to her parents’ hi-fi. “One of the records that was powerfully impactful to me was [1961’s] Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley,” the vocalist, 54, recalls. “She was as much a horn player as a singer on that album.
“So I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll pay tribute to that record.’ But there are only six songs she performs. So I went back to the beginning of her story. How did she find herself with Cannonball and then with George Shearing? What interested me the most were the early years, when the arrangements were so succinct and tight and swinging. I only got as far as 1964. I didn’t want to go into the pop or R&B worlds she ended up exploring, so I stayed in that [early ’60s] valley.”
Her first call was to pianist Andy Ezrin, whose connection with NYV dates back nearly a quarter-century and who participated in Kinhan’s two previous albums. “We started to develop the concepts and arrangements,” Kinhan says. “Like on ‘Never Will I Marry’ we have this herky-jerky bassline, and on ‘A Sleepin’ Bee’ [the album’s title track], I wanted Andy to really pay tribute to Shearing [and his] clustery, meaty, gorgeous voicings. So we were paying homage to Nancy but also to the incredible musicians who were on those records.”
To workshop the material, Kinhan established a residency at the Jazz Loft in Stony Brook, on Long Island’s North Shore. “I wanted to give the music time to grow,” she explains, “so I put together Andy, Matt Wilson on drums and Ben Allison on bass, as well as Jay Anderson [alternating on bass], and we started to develop it on the bandstand. It came together very nicely, and Matt brought a lot of wonderful color and ideas to the music, as he does.”
As 2017 dawned, Kinhan connected with acclaimed sound engineer Elliot Scheiner. Long associated with Phil Ramone, Scheiner, whose current Grammy tally includes 26 nominations and eight wins, has worked with everyone from Dizzy Gillespie to Beyoncé. He’s helped shape two New York Voices albums and has known Kinhan since her Ramone-produced solo debut, Hardly Blinking, from 2000. “We decided to do everything live, with the band in the same room and Lauren in a vocal booth but with the door wide open,” Scheiner says. “We felt that that was the way Nancy made records back then.”
Searching for affordable studio space, he called Carl Beatty, another esteemed engineer, now Assistant Vice President of Artist and Music Industry Relations at Berklee, Kinhan’s alma mater. “I said I had a singer and small band and wanted to record it all live, and to make things on their end work out, we’d come in to do a pre-production class on Thursday night, then record on Friday and Saturday,” Scheiner explains. “He and the dean thought it would be great for the students to see an entire record done in two days. We had about 25 students in the pre-pro class and about 30 each recording day, with nine or 10 who were there every minute.” Scheiner subsequently invited that core group to his home in New York to witness the final mixing. All accepted. He also arranged with music-education publisher Hal Leonard to film the recording sessions and craft an instructional video.
Berklee’s offer of its Shames Family Scoring Stage came with one hitch: The only open weekends were less than a month away. “We had to move very quickly,” Kinhan says, “and Matt, Ben and Jay weren’t available. So I gathered Matt Penman, who is a wonderful bassist, and Jared Schonig on drums. … We basically had one rehearsal. The beauty of it is that the music was really conceptualized, which wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t had the workshop gigs the year before.” Added to the mix was Ingrid Jensen. Why, with so strong a Cannonball connection, a trumpeter and not a saxophonist? Says Kinhan, “I felt going with saxophone was a little too obvious. I love Ingrid’s playing and also wanted another woman on the bandstand.”
The final program includes five selections from the Adderley album, two from 1961’s The Swingin’s Mutual! with Shearing and such signature Wilson pieces as “Guess Who I Saw Today” and “How Glad I Am.” All are cleverly, thoughtfully reinterpreted, particularly the closing “Happy Talk,” which Kinhan likens to “a circus moment. … There’s a theatricality to it now that I like, and it made sense for me as an artist to take an expressive risk like that.”
Though its release celebrates Wilson’s 80th birthday, A Sleepin’ Bee, due out Oct. 6, is more than just a tribute. “No one is ever going to say I sound like Nancy,” Kinhan observes. “She was my muse and also a way for me to find a launching pad for this project. I tried to stretch a lot without stretching too far, trying to frame what I do well in these settings. It’s a celebration of Nancy, but it’s definitely a Lauren Kinhan record.”