I make it a point to almost never read other writers unless I am doing research on an artist that I may not be as familiar with as others. There are some artists that are a pure joy to discover without the slightest pre-conceived notions that come from outside influences and Kenny Shanker is one such artist. Originally recorded in 2009 but taking two and one half years for release has proven well worth the wait as Shanker's musical happy place is somewhere between post modern fusion and a more accessible straight ahead sound that others are just now catching on to.
Kenny Shanker's debut release for Posi-Tone is on the cutting edge of a more dynamic approach to straight ahead jazz. At times lingering in the hard bop outer reaches while at other times approaching an edgy fusion sound from the late 70's, Shanker is developing a unique artistic voice and is certainly a name to remember. One review was somewhat troubling while not intentionally misleading is certainly worthy of further explanation. www.exclaim/ca describes Shanker's tone and diction reminiscent of fusion pioneer David Sanborn. Of course taste is subjective and ten different listeners can walk away with ten different opinions, the quote " His tone and diction might remind you a bit of David Sanborn, a chief purveyor of smooth jazz " is terribly misleading. Smooth jazz is a radio format that official kicked off ten years after Sanborn released his first offering in 1975. To be factually correct if not historically responsible you can take some of the more commercial works of Wes Montgomery from roughly 1965 and these tunes easily fit the accepted definition by context that is smooth jazz. To play guilt by association with a genre that Shanker does not even remotely come close to is irresponsible at best and a gross over-generalization of a true rising star in the alto saxophone world. As someone that plays, Shanker's tone and articulation is far closer to a Phil Woods or Lee Konitz. As a soloist Shanker is a lyrical gifted player with a keen sense of harmonic development perhaps closer to a Sonny Stitt. Musical frames of reference are inherently unfair as I have stated many times and this may be the best instance of proving my point.
While Shanker's compositions are deceptively subtle in their accessibility there is a far more complex melodic development occurring throughout Steppin Up including "Winter Rain" which takes on a bit of a hard bop bite with Art Hirahara's piano solo. "Firth and Berry" continues the hard bop feel while Shanker's keen sense of harmonic progression allows for a lyrical sense of purpose. "Sarah" is a soulful ballad that moves to the point of melancholy with some intimate solo work from both Shanker and pianist Mike Eckroth.
There is an intriguing zen like less is more approach to this release. Notes are not wasted and melodic lines are for the most part clean and straight ahead. Kenny Shanker is finding his own niche and has the musical foresight to know when to push forward and more appropriately when to reel it in, a gift that is hard to teach. Stepping Up is a first rate debut release, a captivating ebb and flow as Shanker makes his own musical identity known. A rock solid offering full of depth and texture. Kenny Shanker is destined to become a formidable force in the world of straight ahead jazz!
Track Listing: Winter Rain; Fifth and Berry; Rhapsody; Quirk; E. J.; Sarah; Prowl; Saints; Home Sweet Home; Somewhere.
Personnel: Kenny Shanker: alto saxophone; Art Hirahara: piano; Lage Lund: guitar; Yoshi Waki: bass; Brian Fishler: drums: Mike Eckroth: piano (4, 6, 10).