Sometimes the most memorable musical experiences come as a surprise — the discovery of a new band whether on late-night AM radio, in an unsorted pile of old records or by desperately taking a chance on a live act. Inevitably, these unexpected moments are the ones that stick. Seeing guitarist Kenny Rankin perform solo covers over Winter Break at Palm Beach’s Kravis Center recently became one of my own.
The Kravis Center features a handful of different-sized concert halls, and Rankin performed in the Rinker Playhouse, a small room that sat no more than 300 quiet listeners. The only items on stage were two microphones for voice and guitar, a chorus chair and a baby grand piano. The few spare minutes before he took the stage allowed me the chance to glance at his somewhat impressive biography.
Rankin began his musical career early in New York City, listening to the Spanish sounds of his Harlem neighborhood, and often playing with Jerry Velez, a percussionist who later played with Jimi Hendrix at his historic Woodstock show and on the album Band of Gypsys. After releasing a string of pop singles on Decca, Rankin got the break he needed to earn his own recording contract at Columbia by playing guitar on Bob Dylan’s legendary Bringing It All Back Home. A mildly successful recording and touring career followed; Amazon.com lists more than forty releases, and Rankin has hit the road hard for at least 30 years.
Rankin’s fame by association in New York City might have been his peak — though he had a few hits with other singers, Rankin’s original work pales in comparison to what he can do with a cover. He opened with Jimi Hendrix’s “Up From The Skies,” the second track on one of my top ten albums of all time, Axis: Bold As Love, a beautifully simple song almost no one in the elderly crowd recognized. Rather, this crowd was more at home with the jazz standards, bossa nova and popular Beatles ballads that Rankin filled most of the remaining time with. Among them were two songs about blackbirds, “Bye Bye Blackbird” and “Blackbird,” a selection that aptly surmises his musical vocabulary.
Throughout most of the show, Rankin’s age betrayed his energetic, precise and creative fretwork. He displayed an encyclopedic knowledge of every jazz chord and its inversions, modes and progressions. In a rare feat of musical mastery, it appeared as if Rankin was able to reproduce anything he heard in his head. Though he sometimes rambled during breaks between songs, complaining of a chiropractor error that left him without the motion of one arm for a year, or forgetting if the show was a matinee or evening performance, his guitar work alone was riveting.
However, Rankin’s most distinguishing quality is his voice, low in speaking but richly falsetto in singing. Most of the time, when booming male basses try to hit a note way out of their natural range, the result is ear splitting, but Rankin somehow trained his voice to travel seamlessly in the highest registers. His attempt at a vocals-only encore failed — Rankin is less than half the musician he is when he has his guitar — but for the most part, singing and picking adequately filled the hall with minimal amplification.
Afterwards, Rankin all-too-quickly showed a willingness to sign albums he released on a private label after the major labels dropped him. If Rankin has not earned the success talents like him should, it is a shame; his unbelievable musicianship certainly warrants the same respect our generations pays to similar artists like Leonard Cohen and Dylan.