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Kendra Shank


Harry "The Hipster" Gibson



April 2007
Feature Articles

Music news, interviews, opinion

Kendra Shank pays tribute to Abbey Lincoln


By Tom Ineck


Kendra Shank [Photo by John Abbott]With her new release, “A Spirit Free: Abbey Lincoln Songbook,” singer Kendra Shank has taken on a daunting task—interpreting the music of one of the most idiosyncratic jazz singer-songwriters in history.


She and her longtime ensemble will bring the music of Lincoln to Lincoln, Neb., June 5 in the opening concert of this year’s Jazz in June series.


In a recent interview, Shank talked about the recording and the years it took to bring to fruition.


Unlike many jazz musicians living in New York City, Shank has a regular gig where she and the band can work up new material and hone their music to a fine edge. One Friday a month, they appear at the 55 Bar, Shank’s home away from home for five years. Much of the music on “A Spirit Free” evolved in performances at the intimate Greenwich Village night club.


“A lot of the arrangements for this record were created there, on the gigs at that club. We would just try stuff and see what worked well and what didn’t work well,” she said, pretty much describing the creative process inherent in jazz music.


To Shank’s knowledge, no one else has ever attempted a full-length tribute to Lincoln’s very personal music, although some of her tunes have been covered by other singers, including Sheila Jordan, Cassandra Wilson, Mark Murphy and Freddy Cole. Shank herself included Lincoln songs on her last two releases, in 1998 and 2000.


Her latest homage to Lincoln, however, took the musical challenge to a new level.


Abbey Lincoln [File Photo]“I can’t say enough about Abbey. She has been my idol; she’s been my friend and mentor. I just think the world of her, and she’s such a powerful musician and such a powerful individual,” Shank said. “She has her own voice and her own sound that is so strong. The challenging part was to find my own place in these songs because they are so associated with her, and I had been listening to her versions of them for so long that they’re etched in my aural memory. At the same time, it was also the most natural thing to find my own voice because that’s what you do as an artist. You kind of have no choice. I couldn’t sound like Abbey Lincoln if I tried. I have my own voice.”


As with any recording that Shank is contemplating, the early process was the same. She put away the Abbey Lincoln records, got the lead sheets for the music, sat down with her guitar, learned the melodies and “let them speak to me in a personal way and see what they mean to me in my life, related to my life experience and how I feel about the world.


“Abbey’s songs are so full of universal truths that anyone can relate to if you’re a human being on the planet, living here in the human experience. That’s what her songs talk about, so you can find your own place there about what you’ve lived through. The songs kind of dictated to me what the arrangement would be.”


She realized, for example, that “Wholly Earth” is composed in two “movements,” so she stressed that shift in lyrics and mood with contrasting changes in meter, ending with a swinging samba. “What the song had to say to me naturally expressed itself in musical arrangements.”


Co-producer Andrew Rowan helped Shank narrow the song list for “A Spirit Free.” But first, he sent her a list of every song that Lincoln had ever written.


“He brought some songs to my attention that I wasn’t even aware of, and gave me some recordings that I didn’t yet have in my collection,” Shank said. One of those was “Natas (Playmate),” which appears on the record. Others were chosen for their personal impact on Shank and their relevance in a post-9/11 world, especially “The World is Falling Down.”


Kendra Shank from the cover of "A Spirit Free" [Photo by John Abbott]“She wrote it long before 9/11, but when 9/11 happened I was here,” Shank recalled. “It was a horrible experience for all of us and affected me deeply. I live not far from the site, and my neighborhood was covered in ash and I was wearing a mask to protect myself from the horrible air. On that day, the refrain from that song popped into my head. It was so poignant that when I decided to do this record I remembered that experience and how the song had affected me.”


“A Circle of Love,” with its universal message of peace, has similar resonance for Shank, who is not timid about her own anti-war position. While first playing it through, the Bush war still in its early days, she burst into tears and knew she must include it on the new CD. Even though she had recorded “Throw It Away” for a previous release, she decided it was time to do it again, as the arrangement had evolved significantly and now began with an improvised incantation, a “calling in of the spirits.”


“Being Me” closes the CD with a statement of individuality that is typical of Lincoln’s honesty.


“It sort of sums up, for me, what the album is all about, and what Abbey’s songwriting is about and what living is about, and being an artist,” Shank said. “In delving into these songs and finding my own voice in them, it took me through a whole process of who am I… as an individual, as a human being, as a singer.”


Kendra Shank Quintet [Photo by Gene Martin]Of course, doing justice to Lincoln’s music also required a group of compatible musicians, and Shank has them—longtime bandmates pianist Frank Kimbrough, bassist Dean Johnson and drummer Tony Moreno. For the recording, she also added Billy Drewes on reeds, Ben Monder on guitar and Gary Versace on accordion. The core quartet has been together for eight years, a rare luxury in the jazz world.


“I’m so grateful to have an ongoing relationship with these guys, and to have played with them for so long. We have this chemistry and this connection and this intuitive interplay. We don’t even need to rehearse. We can just get up on the bandstand and play.”


As in Shank’s previous Jazz in June appearance in 2004, she will again be accompanied by Kimbrough, Johnson and Moreno.


Abbey Lincoln [File Photo]Shank’s professional relationship with Abbey Lincoln began in 2000, when Lincoln asked her to play guitar on her recording, “Over the Years.” A former folk and bluegrass musician, Shank largely set aside the instrument when she made the switch to jazz.


“She was encouraging me to play my guitar more,” Shank said of Lincoln. “She kind of chastised me.” After an informal rehearsal with the singer, Shank wound up in the studio performing on Lincoln’s swinging gospel version of the traditional folk tune “Blackberry Blossoms,” for which Lincoln wrote a new lyric.


“It was a beautiful example of what she had been trying to tell me, not to limit my music to genre classification,” Shank said. “I think that’s why I was drawn to her music. These songs just resonate with me, in such a personal way, as if I could have written them myself. This is roots music to me. And Abbey’s songs have such a direct narrative voice in them. Folk songs are storytelling songs. Her songs tell a story, with a lot of imagery, and relate very much to our daily lives.”


In response to Shank’s tribute CD, Lincoln offered support from the start and praised the result with a personal endorsement that is printed on the cover: “This album is a generous, wonderful gift. Thank you, Kendra.”


Likewise, everyone who loves the music of Abbey Lincoln will offer their praise and thanks for a monumental task well achieved. For a review of “A Spirit Free,” click here.




Jazz calendar an embarrassment of riches


By Tom Ineck


The recent spate of jazz concerts in the area is an embarrassment of riches for avid fans who seldom see more than a handful of worthwhile jazz concerts in a entire year.


The Lied Center for Performing Arts has been exceptionally generous with its jazz offerings, thanks to executive director Charles Bethea, who booked singer-guitarist John Pizzarelli, trumpeter Doc Severinsen and His Big Band, pianist Chick Corea with vibraphonist Gary Burton, and the Maria Schneider Orchestra in the last three months alone. It has been one of the strongest jazz seasons in the Lied’s 17 years, and we hope it’s a trend for the future.


Terell Stafford [File Photo]The Nebraska Jazz Orchestra also built a strong concert series for its 2006-2007 season, with guest appearances by singer Karrin Allyson, singer Giacomo Gates and trumpeter Terell Stafford, in addition to local area favorites trumpeter Mac McCune and baritone saxophonist Kerry Strayer.


We’re especially looking forward to the May 25 performance by Stafford, perhaps best known for his five years touring and recording with Bobby Watson's quintet Horizon, which featured drummer Victor Lewis of Omaha. Stafford also has played with Herbie Mann, Shirley Scott, and Kenny Barron, among many others. He has five recordings as a leader, including, “Taking Chances: Live at the Dakota,” which was recorded in 2005 at the famed Minneapolis club and was released this March.


Jazz fans also can set their sights on four fine offerings at this year’s Jazz in June, the weekly series of free Tuesday evening outdoor performances in the Sheldon Sculpture Garden on the downtown campus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.


The Hot Club of San Francisco [File Photo]On June 5, Kendra Shank brings her veteran quartet to the venue, where the audience is likely to hear tunes from “A Spirit Free,” her new tribute to the music of Abbey Lincoln. The Berman Music Foundation brought the same band to Jazz in June in 2004.


The Hot Club of San Francisco will present its exemplary gypsy swing music June 12. The ensemble has a relationship with the BMF that goes back to 1995, when the quintet appeared with singer Barbara Dane at the Zoo Bar in Lincoln. They also played at Jazz in June in 2002 and as part of the 2005 Topeka Jazz Festival.


Stan Kessler [File Photo]June 19 will see the return of trumpeter Stan Kessler and his Sons of Brasil, which also were featured in the 2002 Jazz in June season. Finally, the Nebraska Jazz Orchestra will return for its annual date, this time with Kansas City vocalist Angela Hagenbach.


All in all, things have been very, very good for local jazz fans.



Colorado Correspondent

Harry "The Hipster" Gibson: A forgotten progenitor of bop?


By Dan DeMuth


Okay. Up front. This is not an essay on bop, which is best left to professionals. But it is about an individual who was there, on “The Street,” at the birth; one who associated and performed with those stellar lights generally acknowledged as the originators. He should be at least mentioned in any discussion on bop.


"Boogie in Blue," a documentary of Harry "The Hipster" Gibson on Rhapsody Films [Photo by Dan Demuth]Harry Gibson (real name Raab) is best remembered, if at all, as a singing pianist who combined outrageous antics with his self-penned lyrics. This often overshadowed the talent flowing from his fingers onto the keyboard. Into the mix, add an outgoing fun-loving, if irreverent personality, a love for the weed and perhaps other substances, and a live-for-the-moment attitude, and the portrait becomes well-brushed. Standing while playing, blond hair flying around, kicking away the stool, occasionally noodling the keyboard with a foot—all were part and parcel of his sets, usually performed during intermissions of the headliners at major jazz hangouts on 52nd Street in New York City. (His “shtick” may remind some of a certain rock ‘n’ roller, some 15 years later, named Jerry Lee Lewis.)


After studying at Juilliard and a stint as a teacher, Harry got his start while imitating Fats Waller’s style, both in his keyboard work and his vocalizing, and playing with an otherwise all-black band known as the Chocolate Bars. He allowed the rumor to be spread that Fats had in fact been his mentor. Legend has it the jive ended one night when a large black man whom Harry didn’t know approached the keyboard and asked him about his apprenticeship. After naming Mr. Waller as his teacher, he found out he was talking to the man. Waller opened some doors and an enduring friendship was born.


While in the strictest sense not a bop pianist such as Al Haig or Bud Powell, a close listen to two Beiderbecke compositions he performs on a 1944 Eddie Condon Town Hall Concert (available on the Jazzology label) certainly displays some unique harmonic structures. Condon introduces him saying, “When I mention Juilliard its hard to imagine they would even get close to something like this.”


"4F Ferdinand, the Frantic Freak," on Musicraft [Photo by Dan Demuth]His first recordings in 1944 on the Musicraft label, whose artist list included Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, and Boyd Raeburn, among others, display such fantasy flights as “Handsome Harry the Hipster” and “Get Your Juices at the Deuces.” An opus he penned entitled “4F Ferdinand, the Frantic Freak” could perhaps best be described as a self-parodied tone-poem.


On Sunday, April 12, 1944, after a typical late-night soiree, Harry went into the studio with bassist John Simmons and Big Sid Catlett and cut eight sides. Gibson says that at the session they were rather ill but well medicated and "Boogie Woogie in Blue," on Musicraft [Photo by Dan Demuth]also claims there was a single take for each cut. Musicraft issued this four-record 78 rpm album entitled “Boogie Woogie in Blue,” adorning each disc with a blue label rather than their standard red color, quite a tribute to any artist. In addition to the three above-mentioned titles, it included “The Hipster’s Blues Opus 6 7/8,” “Barrelhouse Boogie,” “The Hipster’s Blues Opus 7 ½,” “Stop That Dancin’ Up There,” and “Riot in Boogie.” Three of those were re-released on the el cheapo Sutton label in the mid ‘50s. In 1945 he could be found on some V-discs as well as transcriptions for the Armed Forces Radio Stations (AFRS).


Four more sides were issued on Musicraft in 1947, with two possibly becoming his best known sides. “Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine?” can be read as a humorous riposte to the self-righteous scrutiny he was undergoing. The flip side, “I Stay Brown All Year Round (at The Deuces)” he says relates to the company he keeps at The Three Deuces.


"Rockin' Rhythm," on the Sutton label [Photo by Dan Demuth]But, it was the lyrics he sang that so closely assimilated the wildness of his performing style. If one could convert scat gibberish into actual words, he was the man. Slim Gaillard, Cab Calloway and Louis Jordan had incorporated jive phrases and antics into their acts, but never to the degree that Gibson found to be successful. Calloway was reported to have said, “This guy talks jive even I can’t understand.” And, while never in the mainstream, he did paddle in some pretty fast current. “The Street” was the home of many legendary jazz spots with headliners galore. Harry’s niche was in providing the intermission entertainment which had as a positive, the captive audience of the main act, and as a negative the same thing. A unique performance was required of a little wiry ofay in the presence of the mostly black jazz cats topping the bill. But, pull it off he did for a number of years.


A few of the venues he gigged include Kelly’s Stable (with Coleman Hawkins), The Hickory House (with Joe Marsala), The Famous Door (with Count Basie),"Opera in Vout," by Slim Gaillard [Photo by Dan Demuth] The Onyx Club (with Stuff Smith), The Spotlight Club (with Pearl Bailey and Billy Daniels), The Three Deuces (with Billie Holiday, and with the Art Tatum Trio) along with a myriad of others featuring Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Sid Catlett, Ben Webster and Thelonious Monk, the  preponderance being black musicians. Certainly, if a Dorsey, Goodman, Shaw or someone of that stature wandered in, they were asked to sit in, perhaps as a courtesy, perhaps peerage respect, but Harry was there all the time. Unfortunately, he pigeonholed himself into a restrictive capsule of one type of entertainment, which—no matter of what type—quickly becomes passé.


It’s not a stretch to think Harry enjoyed the notoriety that went along with his popularity. Press coverage at that time was predictable. He made the cover of Downbeat even as Time magazine railed against the bad influence that he and Slim Gaillard had on younger fans, specifically referencing lyrics that would seem amusing, but tame by today’s standards. Their records were banned in some radio markets, and other stations reported calls from listeners wondering if Harry was black or white. Renowned author Arnold Shaw once said (when referring to Gaillard and Harry’s undeserved censorship) that neither man really had anything to do with bop. I would humbly and respectfully disagree.


"Everybody's Crazy But Me," on Progressive [Photo by Dan Demuth]From the mid 1930s through the late 1940s, boogie woogie pianists could be found everywhere. His antics had put him at the forefront, but nothing lasts forever. As “The Street” changed and virtually died about that time, also did Harry’s star dim. He continued to perform and record sporadically throughout the next four decades, but as with many of his generation, there had to be some obvious bitterness as rock ‘n’ roll became mainstream. Progress with the times or the phone stops ringing.


This, along with the aging of his once-attentive if not adoring public, eased him into semi-obscurity. In 1991, his daughter and granddaughter co-produced a 40-minute video of his life on Rhapsody Films, well worth the search to find and aptly entitled “Boogie in Blue.” In it he relates numerous tales such as letting a blind Art Tatum drive his car, traveling alone with Billie Holiday in the South, and what perhaps would be scary to some, spending a day and night with Mae West. There are snippets of his frantic performances and an interview with him shortly before he took his life in March of 1991. It was a sad ending, but obviously his choice. Joe E. Lewis was quoted as saying, “You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.” I think Harry was hip to that.




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