Kenny Shanker has worked extensively since graduating from the Manhattan School of Music in 2001, playing with the New World Symphony, and the Tommy Dorsey and Nelson Riddle Orchestras, among others. The young alto saxophonist recorded his debut album as leader, Steppin’ Up, in April 2009 but it’s taken almost two-and-a-half years for it to be released. It’s a shame that it has stayed in the vaults for so long, for Shanker’s melodic and accessible brand of straight-ahead jazz is immediately enjoyable, with enough twists and turns to reward repeated listening.
Steppin’ Up also benefits from the musical talents of some exceptional sidemen, including pianists Art Hirahara and Mike Eckroth and guitarist Lage Lund. Shanker engages with each of these players in some delightfully melodic interactions, while they all fashion solos of quality.
Shanker wrote all but one of Steppin’ Up‘s ten pieces, possessing a knack for crafting tunes that mix an easy, engaging, melodic center with something a little deeper and more complex. “Winter Rain” opens with Shanker’s simple, clear alto line and Hirahara’s left-hand chords, but gets a little edgier thanks to Hirahara’s slightly jagged solo. The hard bop of “Fifth and Berry” features some tight unison playing from Shanker and Lund, while Brian Fishler’s percussive drive ensures that the tune has a real sense of movement. “Quirk,” despite its title, is one of the most straightforward tunes on the album, with Shanker’s alto taking on a smoother, more ’80s sound than usual, while “Sarah” is a soulful ballad, with delicately evocative solos from Shanker and Eckroth, whose playing lends the tune a hint of sadness.
Shanker closes Steppin’ Up with a languid, melancholy, version of Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere.” Both Shanker and Eckroth solo with sensitivity, while the tune’s mood is enhanced by some deftly understated playing from Fishler and bassist Yoshi Waki. This understated approach sums up much of the album—Shanker can blow, but has the maturity and musical awareness to realize that his melodies often work best when he keeps things simple. The resulting album is impressive and hints strongly that Shanker is a player to watch.