Kendra Shank coos like a dove-if there were jazz doves that improvised and rephrased every call. It is the soft yet penetrating purity of her voice itself, its direct stimulus to the central nervous system, perhaps especially to the male central nervous system, that is the primary fact of a Kendra Shank concert.
She dresses with casual elegance and has a lovely, wide, unguarded smile and talks to an audience of 200 as if they were three or four intimate friends. She exemplifies qualities that this writer’s mother would have described, approvingly, as “ladylike.” She is quite proper for a jazz diva, yet it would be a mistake to conclude that Shank is a Girl Scout. She can wail and bend songs into free forms. But unlike most jazz singers, she never goes raspy or rough, even when she cuts loose. She just coos. Like a dove. Right in your ear.
At the Ruby G. Schulman Auditorium in the Carlsbad City Library, about 30 miles north of San Diego, on a hot, bright Sunday afternoon refreshed by ocean breezes, Shank sang mostly songs from her new album, Mosaic, on Challenge. She has always made creative choices in repertoire. She sang “The Shining Sea,” composed by Johnny Mandel for the film The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, with lyrics by Peggy Lee. She made it an aching, dead slow beach love song. “Life’s Mosaic,” by Cedar Walton, was the opposite, fast and hard and twisty, and it launched a swooping, scatting Shank solo. “I’m Movin’ On,” by Kirk Nurock and Judy Niemack, played to one of Shank’s strengths: sensitivity. It is a literate, authentic portrayal of a complicated modern emotional predicament. (On Mosaic, the song is airy. At the Schulman, the proclamation of the title was firmly assertive. The difference in tone was because of pianist Geoffrey Keezer-more on him in a moment.)
A much more familiar tune was Cole Porter’s “All of You,” except that Shank uses the known frameworks of such songs as departure points. The sensuous allure of her voice can camouflage the radical liberties she often takes with altered phrase lengths and realigned accents. Shank can break everything up and still make it flow.
To listen to Mosaic and then to go straight into a Shank concert is to be struck by her degree of control over every nuance of her live performance. Her live show had even fewer loose ends than her studio album. One example of how she has the details covered is her manipulation of the microphone. She has very clean diction, and knows exactly where to hold the mic so that her words (and her wordless notes) are crystal clear-unless she blurs them on purpose. Sometimes she moves the mic across her mouth to create dramatic oscillating special effects. There did not appear to be a single hiccup or hesitation in Shank’s two hours of music, which is notable given that she was working with a new rhythm section. Bassist Hamilton Price and drummer Zach Harmon are promising young players from Los Angeles. Price took lyrical solos that were intelligent encounters with the songs in which they occurred-pizzicato on “The Shining Sea,” yearning arco on “So Far Away.” Harmon was musical and crisp, and versatile enough to play atmospheric tablas on Abbey Lincoln’s “The Music Is the Magic.”
But Keezer was Shank’s trump card. Keezer was feeling it on this sunny Sunday afternoon. Every solo he took was startling. He crashed intervallic clusters into “Blue Skies” and spattered freely at the margins of “I’m Movin’ On” and erected tall, blocky architecture in “Life’s Mosaic” and spilled a private concerto into the middle of “Throw It Away.”
Shank’s voice is so attractive that it is fully entertaining just to hear her sing a melody straight, which she almost never does. The closest she came at the Schulman was Carole King’s “So Far Away.” She said that she has loved the song since she was 13. She was content to let her voice quietly happen to “So Far Away” and linger there. On Carlsbad’s warmest day of 2009 to date, it was worth coming inside for.