August 2007

Kendra Shank - A Spirit Free: Abby Lincoln Songbook
Challenge Records CR73253
Format: CD
Released: 2006

by John Crossett

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

Abby Lincoln had a profound influence on an entire generation of jazz singers. Never shy about singing only what she wanted to, she never allowed herself to be pigeonholed. Kendra Shank has been an Abby Lincoln fan since she began to incorporate Lincoln’s songs into her repertoire in 1994, but it was a Lincoln Center concert in 2002 that got her to think about recording this album. Could she do this material justice? Lincoln’s answer was the title of a signature song: "Not to worry."

Shank and her core group, made up of Frank Kimbrough on piano, Dean Johnson on bass, and Tony Moreno on drums, often play African-influenced jazz, and a few of the cuts show that influence. The singer and her instrumentalists have been together for over eight years. Such shared experience allows each to understand the others inside and out. That pays off here, for Lincoln’s material is anything but easy. Guest players make a great contribution. The reed playing of Billy Drewes, the guitar of Ben Monder, and the accordion of Gary Versace all add spice and color in supporting Shank’s deep, sexy, golden-toned voice.

I was particularly taken by both "Not To Worry" and "Down Here Below," which Shank sings in a manner that it had me doing a double take to make sure I hadn’t accidentally pulled one of Lincoln’s discs by mistake. The album was recorded live, which gives it a fresh feel. Shank’s vocals sound full-bodied and three- dimensional. Each musician exists within his own space, and the instrumental tone is just right. That all helps make this disc a success on two levels: as a superb musical tribute you will want to savor often, and as a sonic demo disc.