Vocalist, composer, and bandleader Kendra Shank has really come into her own and found ever-broadening audiences, since she made the sensible decision to move to New York City about 1995. Since then, she has emerged as an original singer with her own identifiable sound, and her background as a folk singer who busked around Paris for a number of years sets her apart from the rest of the pack of contemporary female jazz singers.
Born in California in 1958, Shank was raised by two very musically supportive parents. [She is not related to the late West Coast alto saxophonist Bud Shank.] Her father was a playwright who taught at the University of California, while her mother worked as a singer and actress. Shank made her stage debut as a five-year-old actress with her mother in a university production of Threepenny Opera. She later studied piano, guitar, oboe, painting, and sculpture and also developed an interest in French language and culture.
In the '70s and '80s she lived mostly in the Northwest and finally graduated from the University of Washington in 1982. In between semesters at school, she went on extended tours of coffee houses around Paris, performing the songs of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and other American singer/songwriters for Parisians, and then came back to the Seattle area to perform songs by French songwriter/playwright Jacques Brel.
By the early '90s, having made a few trips to New York City, the jazz capital of the world, Shank sang backup for saxophonist Jim Pepper and pianist/singer/songwriter Bob Dorough. She also befriended pianist-singer Shirley Horn, who took Shank under her wing and arranged for her to record her debut album for Mapleshade Records. Her 1992 debut, Afterglow was released and distributed by Mapleshade. Another mentor of Shank's was Abbey Lincoln, who gave her a place to stay when she first moved to New York. Shank finally moved completely from the Seattle area to New York City in 1997. Lincoln encouraged Shank not to limit herself or her voice or her music in any way. Suitably, Shank plays guitar on a bluegrass tune, "Blackberry Blossoms," on Lincoln's "Over te Years" album.
Following the release of Afterglow for Mapleshade Records, Shank recorded Wish (1998) and Reflections (2000), both for the Canadian-based Jazz Focus label. In the late '90s, Shank and her booking agency were able to put together a series of short tours for her around the U.S. and Canada that included prestigious jazz clubs like the Blue Note and Birdland in New York City, Blues Alley in Washington, D.C., and the Dakota in St. Paul, Minnesota. It was also in the late 1990's that she formed a fairly regular backup trio that includes Frank Kimbrough on piano, Dean Johnson on bass, and Tony Moreno on drums.
Early in the new millennium, Shank played local gigs around Manhattan and stayed off the road while recording a project four years in the making, Spirit Free: Abbey Lincoln Songbook, for the Netherlands-based Challenge Records. Spirit Free was released in February 2007. Shank has used her background in theater and folk singing to find new and compelling ways to be distinctive in telling stories in different ways, and while she's drawn high marks from jazz critics for her recordings, stardom on a wider scale has eluded her, perhaps because of the nature of the record business these days and the relative popularity of jazz and blues and contemporary folk songs to other forms of music like rock & roll and hip-hop.
She's been featured on the National Public Radio programs Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz and JazzSet, and has performed with dozens of well-known jazz musicians, including Dorough, Horn, Lincoln, Jaki Byard, Mark Murphy, Sheila Jordan, and guitarist Ralph Towner. Shank has also taught at the Brooklyn-Queens Conservatory of Music, the University of North Carolina, the Marciac Festival, and the New School in lower Manhattan. In 2009, she released her fifth album, Mosaic, for the Netherlands-based Challenge Records label. She continues to tour around the U.S. and Canada and when she's not on the road, she does regular gigs with her quartet at Lower Manhattan's 55 Bar and Cornelia Street Café'. It would be five years before her next album. New York Conversations, with John Stowell, was released in 2014. ~ Richard J. Skelly