Friday, September 14, 2018

Johnaye Kendrick's Flying

An embarrassment of riches, indeed.

I've mentioned that I have numerous releases to review right now, as usual, and a significant percentage of albums in the pile are spectacular releases from gifted female jazz singers. Vocalist and composer Johnaye Kendrick is yet another stand out--which begs the question that if everyone stands out, are they still standing out?--but I gravitated toward the loveliness of her voice and the way it reminded me of Ella Fitzgerald without sounding too much like Ella, much in the same way Kate Reid sounds like Julie London while still retaining a modicum of originality. Kendrick studied and graduated from Thelonious Monk Jazz Institute and has worked with Terence Blanchard, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and many others, which is why she has a grand sense of the classic traditions. But she also casts this mix of original compositions and standards in a light that is clearly modern--just like Kate Reid does. As a result, her new album Flying doesn't sound like a classic Ella, but an Ella who is still alive in 2018 and who enters the studio to show her enduring relevance.

"I was relatively shy about performing my music while in the program," Kendrick explains, "because it was so personal." Once you hear those words, you sense the same shyness in the music--there's a beautiful yet tentative quality about her velvety voice that suggests she might a little nervous about revealing so much about herself. It's not quite vulnerability, which can be a very desirable trait in a singer's voice, since she does sing as if she's confident about her talent. Flying, however, has the feeling of a stolen deep breath before walking out on stage, of saying "Here we go" and knowing that a lot is riding on this. Not only is she throwing that magical voice out there and hoping you'll love it, but her arrangements have that same compelling sense of risk. Fortunately she understands the deep emotions a beautiful melody can summon, and her big move turns out to be the right one.

Kendrick adds one addition element to her songs that sets her apart--she's topical. The opener, an original song titled "Never You Mind," tackles BLM and informs the listener that "You come from a legacy of warriors and though there's fear/Know that fear's what fueled the fire of courage that led us here." She invests so much of herself into these lyrics; she describes the songwriting process as "performing journal entries, as the pieces were always so honest and literally based on my experiences." She even infuses the standards such as "It Could Happen to You" and "The Very Thought of You" with that same spirit of adaptation. If you need proof of this, listen to her stunning arrangement of "I've Got No Strings"--you might forget about the source.

Flying is a brave album, augmented by sensitive musicians such as keyboardist Dawn Clement, bassist Chris Symer and drummer D'Vonne Lewis, along with a few guest artists. Kendrick even plays the harmonium with that same personalized touch--you can hear her longing, regret and hope through its notes. Kendrick may use Ella as a jumping off point, but by the end of the album she has gone off on a trajectory that is purely this woman and no one else. She's a warm and emotional singer, a gifted arranger and an artist who knows that the past is prologue, so there's plenty of room to be like no one else.

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