If you love Bop—and who doesn't—have I got a guy for you! Kenny Shanker is a brilliant saxophonist, pianist, vocalist, and composer. In 2011, Shanker released his first album called Steppin’ Up and followed that, in 2014, with Action City. 2017 saw the release of The Witching Hour, his third recording. Now he releases Beautiful Things, a remarkable album of originals and Jazz standards. The quest for beauty runs like a thread through all of the 12 tracks on the album.
Shanker is on alto saxophone and is joined by Daisuke Abe on guitar, Mike Eckroth on piano, Yoshi Waki on bass, Brian Fishler on drums, and on three tracks by Bill Mobley on trumpet. These guys can swing with the best of them.
Cool Mint kicks off the album with a circumspect work of fine Jazz with great alto sax leads from Shanker and excellent work by Mike Eckroth on piano. Here begins the quest for beauty and it is a diligent search, indeed. Daisuke Abe’s guitar solos are brilliant and Waki and Fishler set a steady pace for the melodies to expand. An original from Shanker, Cool Things is a cool start to a cool album.
Prestissimo is as quick and lively as the song title indicates. Think of the blistering Bebop of Parker and others and you can see where the influences were born. The Rodgers and Hart beauty It Never Entered My Mind is from the 1940 musical Higher and Higher. Eckroth’s languid and lovely piano opens the piece and Shanker takes on the memorable melody with gorgeous effect. Abe offers a wonderful acoustic guitar interlude that is warm and captivating.
Mirth is another Shanker original and features Mobley on trumpet in fine lockstep with Shanker. Shanker gives some raw alto punctuations as Waki and Fishler keep a tight pocket for the rhythms along with Eckroth’s percussive piano passes. Both guitar and piano give fascinating leads and the melody has a great hook.
Speaking of great melodies, Oscar Peterson’s L’Impossible follows and is beautifully arranged for the alto sax with bright passages from piano and guitar. Pay attention to Waki’s cool and understated bass lines.
Orange and Gray is another Shanker original and the transitions between the soloists are intriguing in an avant garde approach. This is followed by Vincent Youmans’ Without a Song with its andante bop. It includes some oof Shanker’s sweetest spots on the album. And Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer’s I’m Old fashioned is just beautiful under the exquisite touch of Shanker and the guys.
Romberg and Hammerstein’s Softly as in a Morning Sunrise gets an excellent Bop makeover with Shanker’s sax acting as the pathfinder. An all-time favorite, this song is finely recrafted and the rhythm section makes for attentive hearing at their up-tempo best.
Things slow down with Jimmy Van Heusen’s Like Someone in Love from the 1944 movie Belle of the Yukon. It is a cool duet between Shanker and bassist Yoshi Waki. Gorgeous.
In Walked Bud is the Thelonious Monk tribute to Bebop master Bud Powell. And if you think you hear snatches of Irving Berlin’s Blues Skies, you are quite correct, of course. As with anything resembling Powell and Monk, the piano gets a great solo as Waki again makes his bass presence heard and felt but Fishler’s drums get a special feature. All worth the price of admission.
The quest for beauty comes to its beautiful climax with Shanker’s own Beautiful Things. The title tells you everything you need to know. It is a sweet and lovely melody with tone and texture taking precedence over tempo and precision. It is an excellent way to end the quest and so satisfying. Shanker’s tonality is splendid.
Kenny Shanker’s Beautiful Things is something gorgeous. With echoes of the world and sound of Bebop, it is what we need to hear now. As ugliness seems to grow and encroach all about us, Shanker truly reminds us that we are surrounded by Beautiful Things.
~Travis Rogers, Jr. is The Jazz Owl
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