Alto saxophonist Kenny Shanker has been involved with jazz since his early teens – he even toured Japan twice with the Monterey Jazz Festival High School All-Star Big Band. He makes his Posi-Tone Records debut with “Steppin’ Up” and, like the Patrick Cornelius release I reviewed a few weeks back (read here), Shanker builds the majority of his songs off of strong melodic lines. He gets great support from the sparkling rhythm section of bassist Yoshi Waki and drummer Brian Fishler. Add to them the hard-edged piano of Art Hirahara plus energetic contributions from guitarist Lage Lund and the listener is rewarded time and again. Listen to the short but lovely “Rhapsody” or the rollicking “E,J.“, 2 very different pieces yet both have excellent melodies – the latter piece is enlivened by the interplay of Fishler with the soloists. Pianist Mike Eckroth replaces Hirahara on 3 cuts, including the hearty “Quirk“, the sweet ballad “Sarah”, and the lovely take on Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere” that closes the CD (and is the only non-original in the program.)
Through it all, Shanker’s alto saxophone playing is impressive for the way he builds his solos, his warm tone and lively engagement with the band. Lund matches warm tone as well as creating solos off the energy of his band mates. Hirahara continues to impress as a sideman and soloist; in the former role, he does not just lay back but engages the soloist with fine chords and counterpoint while his own solos have an energy that reflects the influence of Bud Powell (my opinion) without being derivative of anyone in particular.
Thanks to the fact that my new job has me in the car 5 days a week, I have been listening to most of my music “on the road.” “Steppin’ Up” sounds like great with the windows down driving the back roads, the music washing over me like a friendly rain storm. Wherever you decide to listen to Kenny Shanker’s debut CD, you’ll enjoy the sonic ride. For more information, go to www.posi-tone.com.
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.