Kendra Shank, a former Seattle jazz singer, plays with her quartet Tuesday and Wednesday at Jazz Alley in downtown Seattle.
Of the many accomplished singers to come out of Seattle lately and long ago, few have taken as circuitous a path as Kendra Shank, the former folk singer and French chanteuse who will headline Jazz Alley this week.
What started as a second career as a jazz singer has reached maturity in time for Shank’s 50th birthday. She will perform with her quartet of 10 years at Jazz Alley in a homecoming of sorts.
“In terms of my musical development, Seattle is where I grew up,” said Shank, who was raised in San Diego and worked here from 1979 to 1997.
She was a folk singer in college — Shank attended both Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma and the University of Washington. In her early 20s, she accompanied herself on guitar, a regular on the open-mic circuit, in the style of Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and James Taylor, shifting into country and bluegrass now and then, occasionally playing with a banjo player.
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Having earned a degree in art and French, she shifted styles further, performing old, French popular songs at various French restaurants in Seattle (including La Rive Gauche, the restaurant that would become Tula’s). Those gigs were hugely popular and financially rewarding, but more importantly, served as her transition into jazz.
In 1989, then in her 30s, Shank also began to study at Cornish College of the Arts with jazz vocalist Jay Clayton. When La Rive Gauche became Tula’s jazz club, Shank was the first singer scheduled to perform.
She played regularly with some of the best musicians in Seattle, including John Hansen, Randy Halberstadt, Hans Teuber, Jeff Johnson and Bill Anschell. She also found a receptive audience in Paris.
“I came in as an unknown, but got gigs right away at prominent venues by virtue of being American,” Shank said. “Back then there was a sense of jazz being an American art form and putting Americans up on pedestals.”
Shank paid about $35 a month to share an apartment with her French “sister,” a close friend, whose family hosted her as a teenage exchange student. She later found another bargain apartment in Manhattan where she has lived since 1997.
But her true foothold in New York was her mentor and matron, the singer and pianist Shirley Horn, who took a liking to her and introduced her on the Village Vanguard stage in 1992.
“I’m going to do for you what Miles Davis did for me,” she told Shank.
Shank performed three songs between Horn’s sets. Horn introduced Shank to her current pianist, Frank Kimbrough. And she helped produce Shank’s first album. Other New York club dates followed, including a long-running gig at the 55 Bar in Greenwich Village.
All those years in New York and beyond are reflected in her latest album, “Mosaic,” her fifth and what she calls her most personal album, which comes out April 15. On it are songs by Irving Berlin, Cedar Walton and Carole King, and original compositions by Shank and Kimbrough, who will perform at Jazz Alley with her. Bassist Dean Johnson and drummer Tony Moreno round out the group.
“Kendra can take a tune and transform it,” Kimbrough said. “With this group, there’s trust there; we can just go anywhere.”
The music represents a lot of the experimentation that goes on during the 55 Bar sets, some intentionally, some of it accidentally.
“Your accidents is where your best stuff comes from sometimes,” said Shank, “if you don’t judge them negatively. It’s when you’re thrown off balance, when your ego dissolves, when divine inspiration or whatever you call it, can come through and create something real in the moment.”
Hugo Kugiya: firstname.lastname@example.org