Fond of sketching out meandering suites that miraculously hold together, Kenny Banks Jr.
|Kenny Banks leans into his lively imagination.|
has once again showed his intuitive range, with hand-in-glove assistance from bassist Nick Tucker and drummer Kenny Phelps. As I caught the trio's first set at the Jazz Kitchen Saturday night, my amusement ran slightly ahead of my confusion at separating familiar music as structurally important versus taking it in as extensive quotation. He's made his mark here, having leapt to prominence as a finalist in the 2019 jazz awards of the American Pianists Association.
After the expansive unaccompanied introduction to the first selection, Phelps and then Tucker helped the performance jell around "Blowin' in the Wind." But Banks must feel his substantial departures from the Bob Dylan tune entitle him to present it as his own "American Canvas." There was certainly a lot of Banks' imagination rolled out along lines that didn't owe much to the song, but I couldn't help thinking that without "Blowin' in the Wind" "American Canvas" would have been something quite different. The last time I heard Banks play "American Canvas," I didn't notice the prominence of "Blowin' in the Wind." Maybe his concept of what goes under that title varies widely from gig to gig.
There are many jazz musicians who are fond of quotations in their solos. Sometimes it can be overreaching to see the quote as having shaping force. More often — and the example of the tenor sax master Dexter Gordon comes to mind — the borrowed phrase or two seems incidental, but sounds charming and appropriate for all that.
I was struck by how well-woven quotations seemed to be in the set's longest piece. Titled "Black Wall Street" after the sobriquet of a prosperous neighborhood in Tulsa, Okla., more than a century ago, Banks' composition encompassed the good life among blacks who in 1921 saw their homes and many lives destroyed by a racist white mob. It also had episodes of dissonance evoking the riot, and as an introduction to the bad omens of that atrocity, featured a stunning bass solo. In addition to suggestions of the black church, the best trio sections brought to the fore the era's fox trot and its ragtime antecedents, suggesting the bubble of prosperity burst by the white assault. There was a visit to "Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise," an old Sigmund Romberg classic (1928) much beloved among jazz musicians: a deliberate period reference, or just a whim?
I was a little unprepared to find a longer visit to "My Favorite Things" near the end. It gave the trio a sustained opportunity to revel in 3/4 time. Since the bridge was elided, I wondered if this was an oblique tribute to the John Coltrane approach to this song from "The Sound of Music." Later it turned out that Banks identified that finale as a personal tribute to a family member that he titled "Sunshine After Rain." I had assumed this was all part of "Black Wall Street."
So I'm not sure in retrospect just how much of this uninterrupted performance was Banks' powerful memorial to what happened in Tulsa 101 years ago. Up to a point, I was regarding the suite as an evocative masterpiece. Now I can't say just where it might have wandered away from that focus. If he ever records it, Banks might be in need of an editor as canny as Teo Macero was with Miles Davis.
Some of the trio's virtuosity was expended on well-known tunes seen from a new angle: Dizzy Gillespie's "Con Alma" was refreshed without its embedded Latin pulse. Sonny Rollins' "St. Thomas" was treated as a ballad, though it evolved into a free fantasy on its phrases that charged ahead in the manner of Rollins' versions before subsiding into ballad status.
Banks usefully applied his eccentricity to that of people he's known in Atlanta. I heard the title as "Loon Tune," but in an earlier performance, I thought he said "Balloon Tune." Maybe either reading applies. It's a spacious interpretation of people who sort of drive us mad for a variety of reasons. It started out a bit like "London Bridge Is Falling Down," flecked with dissonance. Then it left the nursery behind and became an occasion for trio partying and the mix of irritation and delight that weird people often give us.
It was not surprising to identify both "Amazing Grace" and "Jitterbug Waltz" in the trio's finale. Who knows if by that point I was more in thrall to my musical phantasmagoria than what Banks was intending? Yet to a considerable degree, in whatever direction he went, he had something eloquent to say, matched by his local bandmates.
What also remains with me, though the comparison may seem remote, is the death a few days ago of Joey DeFrancesco, the Hammond B3 organist who made several memorable appearances here. In my memory and in videos I've seen, DeFranceso always looked as if he was supremely happy to be performing on that particular occasion. Many jazz musicians take delight in entertaining the audience, but DeFrancesco was extraordinary in that respect: He once introduced a break at the Jazz Kitchen by saying, with a broad smile: "We'll be right back with more of this groovin' music." And he meant it.
That sort of attitude is always present in a Kenny Banks Jr. performance as well. And it's a seductive plus, no matter how promiscuously spread around his musical inspirations may seem.
[Photo by Mark Sheldon]