Saturday, June 13, 2009

A Unique Sensibility

I was saddened to hear of Kenny Rankin's death this week. He held a special position in my musical memory, largely due to two albums that my roommate and I listened to incessantly in college.

It was the mid 1970s: that quiet time just before disco stampeded the music industry. The singer-songwriters were ruling the Popular roost. I was weened on this acoustic music. Although I began my listening life as a Doors fan (along with the Monkees--hey, I thought Adam West was legit as Batman!), I soon shifted to folk music. My heroes were Peter, Paul, and Mary. I then branched out from them to John Denver, Paul Simon, James Taylor, and Don McLean.

At this time the label "singer-songwriter" didn't even exist. Perhaps that explains why Kenny Rankin's music was able to achieve a foothold. He played an acoustic guitar, but he had a decidedly jazz-based sensibility. But not exclusively so. He was actually quite versatile. Take the selections on 1974's Silver Morning. "In the Name of Love" was eventually recorded by Peggy Lee. "Haven't We Met" became a part of Mel Torme and Carmen McRae's repetoire. But there are also two Beatle covers: "Blackbird" and "Penny Lane". There's soul, with his cover of Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready". Then there's the strictly "singer-songwriter" fare, co-written with his wife at the time, Yvonne.

The followup to Silver Morning was 1975's Inside. Kenny is all over the map again, with very pleasing results. He and Yvonne deliver a memorable version of Stevie Wonder's "Creepin'"; he skates easily through Jimi Hendrix's "Up From the Skies"; and he puts his stamp on Randy Newman's "Marie" and John Sebastian's "She's a Lady". Kenny Rankin was in peak form.

In addition to Nilsson's Touch of Schmilsson album (see previous blog), I credit Kenny Rankin's next album, The Kenny Rankin Album, as the work that introduced me to my father's music. Rankin "gets his Sinatra on" just as Nilsson had: on this album he is working with arranger and conductor Don Costa. Only two "standards" on this album, though: "Here's That Rainy Day" and "When Sunny Gets Blue". Still, a faithful liner note reader like me had taken note. I loved his eclecticism.

Kenny would recapture this magic with Costa once more in 1980's After the Roses. The album is incredibly romantic, as all of his material is, and it features two of my favorite Rankin songs: "What Matters Most" (lyrics: Marilyn & Alan Bergman; music: David Grusin) and "Regrets".

I noticed that I have his autograph on my copy of this album. I also see that I have a six vinyl releases of Rankin's along with three CDs. I had forgotten how much I loved him. This probably happened because he fell silent through most of the 1980s while I was stuffing my ears and brains with jazz singers and pop standards.

I reconnected with Kenny when he released 1988's Hiding In Myself. (Don't miss his version of Jimmy Webb's "She Moves, Eyes Follow" on this release!) After that, he would periodically release collections of standards that failed to grab my attention. (I thought this material had been much more memorably delivered by my father's singers--oh yes, the transition was complete!)

If there's one release from the last two decades that I'd recommend, it would be 1997's Here In My Heart. A collection of mostly Brazilian, bossa-nova flavored music, it is a warm and inviting album that puts you in a sweetly contemplative mood immediately. (Kenny works with some masters on this one, using Oscar Castro-Neves on support for several numbers by Ivan Lins.)

Kenny Rankin was destined to have a tough time in the music business. He couldn't be pigeon-holed. He might have been labeled "smooth jazz" if he'd been working more in the '80s (maybe not though, since he hardly ever employed a saxophone in his arrangements). He couldn't strictly be called a jazz artist because he played the acoustic guitar and never stuck exclusively to standards. What label can you apply to artists like Rankin, Michael Franks, Jimmy Webb, and Art Garfunkel? (Please, don't tell me "Easy Listening"—that sounds so dismissive! Makes it seem like music that won't require your mind, which is so far from the reality if you're really listening!)

He gained notoriety as an interpreter of Beatle songs (you'll find them on most of his releases). Helen Reddy had a big hit with his song "Peaceful". As Johnny Carson wrote in the liner notes for his 1968 debut, Kenny Rankin had "unquestionable taste" which he displayed throughout his career. Paul McCartney asked him to represent him and play "Blackbird" at the ceremony in which Paul and John Lennon were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1987.

It is comforting to think that at the time of his death he was working on an album with 14-time Grammy award winning producer Phil Ramone, who has worked with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Paul Simon to Ray Charles. Kenny Rankin must have felt a deep appreciation of his work knowing that Ramone wished to work with him.

He was special, and I'll be listening to him again in the days ahead. Dip into some of my Youtube links to his work. Follow the links to Amazon and listen some more. I am certain you'll be captivated!

1 comment:

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