Kendra Shank has come a long way, baby. From a demure, diffident 10-year-old who sang in her bedroom with the door firmly closed to a professional vocalist brimming with confidence and celebrating a hit record, Shank continues to blossom. Her current tour of the West Coast includes a welcome stop in Seattle, where she lived for 18 years while studying the art of vocal jazz.
Shank is riding a wave of success generated by her latest recording, Wish, which peaked this January at no. 27 on the Gavin mainstream jazz chart (based on nationwide radio airplay). Wish follows her well-received 1994 debut, Afterglow, which sold more than 8,000 units—an impressive number for a jazz recording.
Dimitriou's Jazz Alley, Monday, April 12
The warm reception to her work still amazes Shank. "I guess I'm always surprised at any success, because I make it a point to have no expectations. I find that to be a healthy way to live."
Shank's prosperity is partly due to her high-quality musicianship. A musician among musicians—local saxophonist Hans Teuber, bassist Jeff Johnson, pianist Frank Kimbrough, and drummer Victor Lewis all appear on Wish—Shank treats her voice like another instrument in the band rather than its centerpiece. She sings fresh, melodic phrases in buoyant, broken rhythm—the antithesis of heavy swing—a style reminiscent of jazz impressionists like Miles Davis and Bill Evans, whom Shank cites as inspirations, alongside vocalists Jay Clayton, Sheila Jordan, and Abbey Lincoln; two of Lincoln's songs appear on Wish.
Although the quality of Shank's pure-toned mezzo-soprano is unspectacular—often breathy and without a wide range—she is a singer of conviction, full of energy and determination, particularly when inspired by a heartfelt lyric. Above all, Shank's voice emits an authenticity and honesty that audiences can feel. "I try to express my truth in my music," she says. "Recently, I've been in this period of growth and self-discovery. I'm learning to tap into my own power, my creative juice. Music, for me is a way to express that."
You can hear Shank's determination most clearly on the record's title cut, which details a search for power and wisdom, and for a partner who mirrors the singer's own strengths.
"'Wish' started as a poem I wrote on a plane when I was in between relationships, and deliberately staying single for a while," Shank recalls. "I remember thinking, 'If I did get with a guy, what would I want? What kind of qualities would he have?' and I discovered that they were the same qualities that I hoped to develop in myself—'A man with light in his eyes/With soul in his face.' I think the reason I sing that song with such passion is because it's not just a song about what I look for in a guy—it's about who I want to be."
Conversely, Shank doesn't care to sing the "victim" songs so prevalent in the jazz and pop repertoire. "I try to stay away from songs that limit us, lyrics like 'I can't help myself,' 'I'll die if you leave me,' 'You're my whole world'—all that co-dependent stuff that people have mistaken for love. It may be part of the human experience, but it's not real love, and it's not healthy."
Representing life in all its variety is important to Shank. Besides personal strength, Wish offers songs of unbridled joy ("You and the Night and the Music"), deception ("A Lover's Lie"), unselfish reminiscence ("Gone"), and perseverance (a folk-influenced version of James Taylor's "That Lonesome Road").
After this auspicious start, Shank is a bona fide Northwest success story with numerous chapters yet unwritten. Still, when asked about the future, the singer says she has no idea what direction her music might take.
"I just always want to sing songs that are real to me—truthful songs," Shank muses. "It's all about truth. Music is a way of exploring who we are, and hopefully I can contribute and share something that will have a positive affect on people's lives."