RR LogoJohn Stowell and Kendra Shank Have New York Conversations

John Stowell Kendra Shank Photo OneNew York Conversations, the splendid new album from west coast guitarist-songwriter John Stowell and east coast singer-songwriter Kendra Shank, opens beautifully with Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies.” This is an elegant, laid back arrangement that is stripped bare, except for the guitar accompaniment and Kendra Shank’s soft vocals ant it is just one of the many memorable tunes on an album that came together rather spontaneously.

John Stowell explains, “This was not planned at all, as you may know from the press release this was a very ad hoc, spontaneous, let’s go the studio, because my old friend offered us some time. It was kind of a whim and going into the studio there was no real plan about repertoire or exactly what we would do.  We liked the first session so much we began thinking about a second visit and again there was nothing in mind in terms of an album and after two sessions we realized this could become something.  We paid my friend, who initially was giving us studio time gratis, as a way to reconnect after a thirty year absence. We got in touch after thirty years and it was kind of a hello how are you? (It was a) come by the studio invitation.  As a result of that being so informal and so low key, there was no pressure, because we were just having a good time with my friend…two friends Kendra and John, just having a good time. It was serendipity that it had enough substance to have merited some real time mixing it and mastering it and in some cases I overdubbed some other guitars as well. John Kilgore (engineer and recording studio owner) and I went to a private school together in the sixties and we played in a Rock band together. We lost touch for about thirty years and we reconnected through a mutual friend in New York. John for years had done live sound for a theater company and then he was hired to run their studio. He bought the studio and by the time I met him he was in that transition. When Kendra came around he owned the studio and he still does. He has turned into a crack engineer and he has had many, many years of experience now engineering.  Anytime that I am in New York I call and say hello. I introduced Kendra two years ago when we came for our initial tracking and they hit it off well, which I knew they would. The other part of this which you may know is the electronic component that Kendra has with her loop station was really an off the cuff suggestion from me to bring it down to see how that might fit in (providing) some additional texture. Kendra had worked with it at home and had tried it on a few live gigs with her quartet and she said okay, fine. The whole session had that feeling of why not try this, okay great. You want to do this song, let’s do it.

For some of the songs on New York Conversations, Stowell and Shank used an electronic device called a looper to which Stowell already alluded.  

“It was at John’s suggestion that we include the looper. One thing that he had suggested was on “Throup.”  As I recall there were two different songs of his that we were doing and I said oh the looper might work nicely on here.  After we do the head together we have this blowing section where we are improvising and it is a simple four chord section and he suggested, ‘Why don’t you try layering as we improvise. Loop some of your phrases and just keep layering over it. Go ahead and layer as much as you like.’ I tried that and it was really fun and it worked well.  I attempted to create an environment with that over which John could then improvise, so I could become somewhat of an accompanist or an equal conversational partner at least. In any case part of my aim and I don’t know if I was successful, but hopefully I was, but the idea was to allow John the freedom to get away from having to lay down the chord structure so much, so I could create an environment where he could solo. That one just becomes a free for all conversation between the two of us and the looper.

The other song that John suggested using the loops on was “Silent Photographer” and that was also his arrangement idea, as I recall. He said when we record the head why don’t you record that into the looper with you singing the melody with me and that will play back and he can solo over it with his guitar. That looped melody became the accompaniment for his soloing and then I added more chord tones and colors to it and harmonized it a little bit to create that.

(As for) the other looping, a lot of it was on the fly, while we were doing improvised pieces.  When we got to the studio and I think it was on the first session, John said let’s just free improvise for a while and see what happens (she laughs). We started playing and with some pieces I started with the looper, but with other ones we just started improvising and using the looper became an in the moment spontaneous choice. It seemed like ‘Oh I would like to create a repeating pattern here,’ or ‘I would like to create a vamp or a walking bass line or something.’ That would take us in another direction.

The looper has various electronic effects available to me and the one that I use the most is the digital delay. I also have a pedal that is another device called an octaver and that is a separate pedal from the looper that I plug into. I can activate it using a pedal. It can lower my voice either one or two octaves or both at the same time, which I quite often do and I have two octaves below in harmony with each other.

Track thirteen “Walk Talk,” that is one where you will hear me use the octaver with a bass line (she then sings) do do do do (with her voice deeper) and I use the octaver on that to try and emulate a bass line.

I have to give the people who preceded me and who influenced me and who inspired me credit. Jay Clayton is an amazing vocalist who is a pioneering vocal master and I have studied with her over the years, since I first began in 1989 and it was back then that I first saw her using loops.  At that time it didn’t inspire me to use loops, but I know that it was my first exposure to that.  She uses the octave device and it was her that inspired that. I use more delay than she does. Theo Bleckmann is another amazing vocalist who uses a lot of electronic effects and looping.  He is very creative with it. If you haven’t heard of him he does wonderful work as a soloist, but also with Ben Monder the guitarist.  I definitely couldn’t be credited as a pioneer of this. It may be that I approach it in my own way of course. I don’t think it has become very common in the Jazz world. I think in the Pop world people are using it a lot now,” explains Kendra Shank.

An eastern mystical drone introduces us to the couplet of “Hard Travelin’,” and “Motherless Child,” with some very subtle guitar from Stowell serving as the only accompaniment for Kendra Shank’s soulful vocals. The song features a long and elegant guitar solo by John Stowell.

Shank says, “(The song) “Hard Travelin’,” was in this book that I have of songs compiled by Alan Lomax, Songs Sung By Pete Seeger, who was one of my very earliest influences when I was a child. I listened to Pete Seeger and I was sad to hear that he passed this year. He was a wonderful, wonderful man. As you know my roots are in folk music and I was a singer and guitarist for many years. “Hard Travelin” was one that I used to sing as a Folk singer only more like Wood Guthrie’s version, which is more up-tempo.  It is more of a Countryish sound (she then sings some lines from the song). I used to even sing with a twang when I sang Country and Bluegrass music.  That is another story. “Hard Travelin,” came to me one day and I think I was experimenting with the looper. I created this vocal drone and what you hear coming out of the looper is this multi-voice, pre-composed, pre-recorded vocal drone, which is just me singing a tonic. I sing a tonic and a fifth and some overtone singing on the fifth low and then on some higher octaves of it. I had created that vocal drone and I was just experimenting over it when that song came to my head. I started singing it over the drone in that more mournful kind of slow, almost as if it were a spiritual lament.  It just appealed to me. It sounded kind of lonely and sad and that made me think of “Motherless Child,” and I went right into that. It was just something I improvised at home one day.  Off the cuff those two songs just seemed to come out in that moment to express some kind of sadness or loneliness that I was feeling that day.”New York Conversations Cover Art

When the point is raised to Shank that the couplet suggests eastern mysticism meets the old spirituals, she replies, “Yes it is, because of that overtone thing on the drone (her voice goes deep as she imitates it and then bursts out laughing). I like the marriage of those two kinds of cultures coming together.” 

The song “Ghost,” serves as a reminder that “life is much too short, not to forgive.”  It is an elegant story from Kendra Shank’s own experience, set to John Stowell’s composition previously titled “Ghost In The Corner,” and that appeared only as an instrumental on another one of his albums.

Shank says, “I added a lyric to it and then we renamed it “Ghost,” because that is what you need to do when you copyright a song and a lyric has been added, you have to give it a new title.  It is unfortunate, because I love the title “Ghost In The Corner,” (she laughs) and it is that title that inspired the lyrics. It made me think of this story of my friend. There really is nothing further to tell other than what is in the liner notes.

I could give you more detail. I had a very good friend in Paris when I lived there. He was just a pal and there was no romance there. He was a very talented photographer who shot a lot of Jazz and he was hanging out at gigs a lot and shooting. We used to hang out in the clubs together. He introduced me to a lot of people. I had been away from Paris for quite some time, because when I moved to New York I got pretty busy here and I wasn’t going to Paris so much and I hadn’t been in touch with my friends for a couple of years. I heard from someone that he had died and that he had committed suicide. That night when I was sleeping in the middle of the night I was awakened with the sense that somebody was in my room and I looked up and there he was, standing by my bed looking down at me. I said Bernard, what are you doing here? He said, I came to tell you something. I said what is it? He said, life is too short not to forgive and then he kissed me on the forehead and he left.  I was like whoa dude! (she bursts out laughing) I fell back to sleep and when I woke up the next morning I remembered it vividly. I thought wow, was that a dream? Did that really happen? I thought either way, whether it happened or I dreamed that it happened or he came to me in a dream, it doesn’t matter, the point is I got a really important message that I need to hear right now. There were things going on in my life and I really needed that message at that moment.  That’s the ghost story. Bernard went to a lot of trouble to come back and tell me that apparently.”

New York Conversations also features a spritely vocal rendition of Richard Rodgers and Lorenzo Hart’s “My Romance,” including a scat that introduces the song.

John Stowell talks about why the song was included on the album, “I think it was, let’s play a standard, how about “My Romance,” okay, roll, tap. It was kind of like that. This was not extensive meetings, this was, what do you want to do next? How about a standard? Okay, what do you want to do? I think you may have suggested “My Romance,” Kendra, because it is in your repertoire. That arrangement is something that Jim Hall used to like to do, which I also enjoy sometimes. If it is a very familiar tune and we don’t necessarily need the melody at the beginning. The audience could tell either way that this is an improvisation based on something and musicians can probably tell that from one chorus what it was. At a live performance I like to tell the audience, now we are going to do, whatever it is, in this case, “My Romance,” but you won’t hear the melody until the end. That invites them to follow along with us and see if they can discern the form perhaps.  I knew that Kendra would have no trouble improvising on the fly at the beginning of the tune and putting the melody at the end, so we did.”

Shank joins the conversation, “This is another thing that I like about working with John on this project. When I called and said let’s do “My Romance,” and then he suggested approaching it this way, let’s do the blowing up front and then you do the melody at the end. I said, as I recall I don’t improvise on “My Romance.”  I don’t scat on “My Romance.”  He said, oh of course you can (she laughs). John believes more in me than I believe in myself.  This happened all throughout this project when I would say, yes, but I have never done this or blah, blah, blah. He would go, oh yes you can do it, just do it. It will be fun, just go ahead.  Low and behold he was right.  It turns out I do know the changes and it turns out I can scat on this tune.”

“You are also really good at theme and variation, so that’s what you get on a number of these tunes. You use the melody as a framework to depart from when improvising, so that can be a safe harbor to venture out from and then to venture back again, which is what you did on a number of these tunes,” says Stowell.  

Shank says, “Remember back in the day in earlier Jazz when guys were blowing, they did reference the melody. That used to happen more than it does now. It just occurred to me John when you said that, well yes of course that is a perfectly legitimate place to come from when you are improvising and when you are soloing.”

“I think the Swing players very often using the melodies as a primary reference in their solos and I think that changed during the Bebop era. I tell students, please be aware of the melodies, as a way to internalize the form and also as something that you can reference in your solo that will perhaps allow you to get away from your memorized licks and tricks that we all have. I think the whole point of improvising is trying to create something in the moment and the melody is certainly a part of that context,” Stowell says.  

The conversation turned to the role that improvisation plays in the music of John Stowell and Kendra Shank both in their collaborations and their solo careers. Both artists are very generous when it comes to acknowledging the contributions of other artists and we wondered if that influences their approach to improvisation.

John Stowell replies, “I think that is definitely true. We both really value the art of conversation and certainly when we play together I think we have a conversation that doesn’t sound like anybody else and it is still evolving. I am so looking forward to these gigs that we have coming up in April and May to allow us to enter into some other areas.  We are used to playing one gig at a time and it has been spread out over twenty years, but to have this kind of concentrated time together with the music will really take it to some interesting places that we can’t really anticipate. We both absolutely value what space can mean to a conversation. We leave space for the other musicians to allow for the conversation and to encourage it.”

Kendra Shank lends her perspective, “I do too. That’s been in all of my projects, not just with John, but with my quartet and with any music that I make. The whole thing that I find really satisfying about creating music is that exchange and that group conversation.  To me that’s the whole point.  That is what I find satisfying, engaging and beautiful.  In fact, I think it is a great paradigm for a way to live in general. We could achieve world peace if everyone would do this.  I love that exchange and that communication, well exactly what John just said.  To allow your musical colleagues to affect you and in responding…when you sit and leave space and you allow what’s happening to happen, things come out of you that you didn’t even know were in there. If you are listening to your partner and someone else in the band and you are responding to what they’ve just said, something you never imagined before will come out of you. John is a great example of that, because John has a whole harmonic vocabulary that’s very unique to him. The more and more I sang with John the more and more I started to understand his vocabulary. It changed me and I respond to what he’s playing and things come out of me that I didn’t even know I could do and that I didn’t even know were in there. To me that’s the beauty of it. It’s relationships.

Stowell shares, “I tell young guitarists at clinics to listen to singers and horn players to have a notion of how space can function and to think about how people can physically breathe.  I think that allows for the conversation and part of it is it allows for trust and security in this case with one partner, Kendra or in a larger group to be able to allow that space to exist and to feel comfortable that you aren’t going to lose your place in the form or worry about the chord going by, so some of this has to do with maturity. As Kendra was saying it gets you out of your own head space and we all have our own vocabularies, but I think we are both saying that the refinement of the conversation allows you to create something together. It’s not just my resources and my notion of how this should all sound when we are playing together. I am allowing the space for Kendra to contribute in whatever way that she hears and we are reacting to each other and throwing things back and forth. It’s not just me or Kendra, it is the two of us making something together.”

“The thing that you make together becomes this whole other entity, like the way I sing with John is going to be different than the way that I sing with Frank Kimbrough and whatever we create together it’s that thing where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. This combination, this chemistry of these particular people creates this whole new entity that is the combination of all of them together. It is its own unique, magical thing. Each combination is going to be different.  To me that is so thrilling and magical and it just makes me want to play music,” says Shank.

Kendra Shank talks about the duo’s tour in support of their album New York Conversations, “Our twelve city west coast tour was a blast, as we traveled through Washington, Oregon and California and played to enthusiastic audiences. In addition to selections from our CD, each concert featured an improvised piece with my looper and spontaneous storytelling, inspired by landscapes we saw and people we met. The music was always fresh and exciting, as it continuously evolved and our connection deepened. On the east coast, we played in New York City at the beautiful concert theatre Roullette.  On May 30th, we will be at New York City’s 55 Bar and on June 3rd we will be in Northampton, Massachusetts at the Clarion.

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Interview Published May 13th, 2014, All photos property of Kendra Shank and John Stowell and are protected by copyright © All Rights Reserved  Top Photo by: Christian Konopka

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