One of the great song interpreters of our time, Kenny Rankin can mesmerize an audience with his soulful magic. A superb romantic balladeer, he often enriches familiar songs with new life. He caresses notes, adjusts phrasing, and adds emphasis to expand his material's emotional depth.
Just listen to how he totally transforms the Beatles' "I've Just Seen a Face" on the 2002 album, "A Song For You." The jaunty, countryish pacing of the original is reconfigured by Rankin into a haunting, moving ballad.
"The original version was done more like they had been listening to Willie Nelson or Buck Owens at the time," says Rankin. "When you think about it -'I've just seen a face, I can't forget the time or place where we first met' - it's a very dramatic song. I pick songs regardless what the music is about for the story. If I can see that story in my mind, that's how it's selected. It's all about the lyric."
Photo courtesy of the Maui Arts & Cultural Center
On the same album, his poignant rendition of Leon Russell's "A Song For You" ranks at the top of the many interpretations.
"I don't know what my style is," he continues. "When I do a song I read the story, and if it resonates with me then the music is affected by the emotion or the way I feel about this picture in the eye of my heart. That gives rise to aspects of the tonal spectrum. If it's someone else's songs, I just take liberties. I don't mean to rewrite them, I'm interpreting."
It also helps that his marvelous, expressive voice has not been marred by age. "It blows my mind, too," he notes. "I don't question it, I'm just grateful."
Raised in New York City, Rankin absorbed an array of musical influences from Afro-Cuban to pop, and jazz to Brazilian. As a teenager he released a handful of singles. A few years later, he signed with Columbia Records, and found himself playing guitar on Bob Dylan's landmark 1965 album, "Bringing It All Back Home."
"I was at Columbia standing by the water cooler with Dylan's producer at the time," he recalls. "He said, 'What do you think about Dylan picking up the Fender Telecaster and going electric?' I said, 'That's sounds pretty interesting.' He said, 'Do you want to play on it? It's $50 an hour and you get a musician's card.' That was big stuff, a card- carrying official musician. I don't think anyone at the time grasped the enormity of the recording. I played on 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' and 'Maggie's Farm.' It was wonderful."
In 1967, the artist released his debut album, "Mind Dusters," which included one of his most popular compositions, "Peaceful." A couple of years later, the follow-up album, "Silver Morning," featured a popular reworking of the Beatles' "Blackbird," which so impressed Paul McCartney, that he asked Rankin to represent him and John Lennon when they were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. This acclaimed interpreter's other unique Beatles' covers include "Penny Lane" and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."
Through much of the 1980s, Rankin focused on live performance, increasingly emphasizing pop and jazz standards using jazz accompaniment. He ended a long break from recording in 1995 with the albums "Professional Dreamer," a collection of standards, and the Brazilian-flavored "Here In My Heart."
"I think God was very good to me when I was born and music not only gave me a life, it saved my life, and that will be in a book," says Rankin. "I was listening to Eddie Vedder on a music channel tell a story about a guy whose father wasn't his real father and he didn't know that for a while, and then he said, 'That guy was me.' It was so inspiring I went right to paper and pencil and started putting down my truth.
"The music that I play is beautiful and my voice has been a gift from God that has carried me all these years, but the story of my experience is not a pretty picture. I made some really bad choices with drugs and alcohol along the way. I survived myself. I went through a couple of rehabs. I was not wanting to feel the way I felt, that was my answer. For the most part, I put the hard drugs away in 1981. My mother and grandfather were alcoholics and I had a genetic predisposition. So I put that aside."
In recent years, Rankin has been sharing his checkered story with at risk kids in inner-city schools. "I was in East Harlem a couple of months ago and these kids are, who's this white guy with a guitar," he continues. "After a few minutes of telling them about my beginnings, they looked at me through different eyes."
Comfortably entertaining as a solo performer these days, Rankin continues to charm audiences. "The singer-songwriter quietly brought the cozy house down with his honey voice, sweet and sad original tunes and distinctive interpretations of pop standards," praised the Oakland Tribune. "Somehow, Rankin manages to be nostalgic, timeless and contemporary all at the same time. Characterized by poignancy, his performance was the perfect salve."
And The New York Times reported: "For more than 35 years Mr. Rankin has been plying his brand of immaculate folk-pop minimalism and conjuring a mirage of permanent romantic escape on a pink cloud somewhere in the tropics."
"Performing and singing in front of a live audience is the safest place I know," he concludes. "And there's no audience too small. Many years ago, I realized it was all about the work. If you're given the privilege of being able to sing and play in front of an audience, any size, it's about the audience who has invited me into their evening."
* Kenny Rankin performs on Friday at 7:30 p.m. in the McCoy Studio Theater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. Tickets are$39 plus applicable fees, available from the MACC?box office, 242-7469 or www.mauiarts.org.
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We all know Willie K can ace just about any kind of music. On Monday evening, this super-talented musician will focus on just one genre - opera, when he joins around 100 members of the Hawaii Youth Symphony for a free concert in the MACC's Castle Theater.
Inspired by a trip to Venice, Willie debuted a little Italian opera at the Barefoot Natives short-running theatrical show in Lahaina. Last November, he teamed with the Youth Symphony on Oahu, and even recently serenaded surprised folks with some opera in the parking lot of Kona's Keauhou Shopping Center at a Hawaii Food Bank benefit.
With Maestro Henry Miyamuraconducting, the concert features favorite classical, pop and Hawaiian selections. The orchestra comprises secondary school students from 22 schools on Oahu and Kauai. Eight students from the Maui Youth Philharmonic Orchestra will also perform.
* Willie K sings opera with the Hawaii Youth Symphony in a free concert Monday in the Maui Arts & Cultural Center's Castle Theater. Seating is available on a first come/first served basis. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.
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Makana returns to the McCoy Studio Theater for shows Saturday and Sunday. Since releasing his debut CD, this innovative musician has expanded his artistic palette, transcending boundaries, developing an original voice. Taught at an early age by Hawaiian slack key guitar great Sonny Chillingworth, this virtuoso guitarist often infuses culturally diverse elements into his music.
His most recent CD, "Different Game," found him more rocking and pop-focused than before, with tracks reflecting influences ranging from U2 to Peter Gabriel and some Led Zep's folk-rock territory with the stunning, Celtic-raga flavored "Necksnap Blues."
* Makana performs in concert at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday in the MACC's McCoy Studio Theater. Tickets are $30 plus applicable fees, and half-price for kids12 and younger, available as above.
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Groundation's Hawaii Bob Marley Tribute tour brings the group to the Hard Rock Cafe on Wednesday night.
Highlighting the Wailers' pivotal music, the Bay Area roots reggae band will be joined by legendary acid jazz guitarist Will Bernard, and veteran Jamaican drummer Leroy "Horsemouth" Wallace.
Members of Groundation have been performing with Bernard and Wallace in the side project Rockamovya. Billboard has hailed Bernard as, "one of the best-kept jazz-guitar secrets on the planet."
* Groundation's Bob Marley Tribute show is at 10:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Hard Rock Cafe. Tickets $35, on sale at the cafe's Rock Shop.
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Coming up Feb. 20 at McCoy Studio Theater, the return of acclaimed Scottish fiddler Alasdair Fraser and cellist Natalie Haas.
Praised by the BBC as "one of Scotland's most valued tradition-bearers," Fraser "is recognized throughout the world as one of the finest fiddle players Scotland has ever produced," lauded Scots Magazine. "His name is synonymous with the vibrant cultural renaissance which is transforming the Scottish musical scene."
With film credits including solo performances on the soundtracks of "The Last of the Mohicans" and "Titanic," Fraser has made guest appearances with groups like The Waterboys and The Chieftains, and was a featured soloist along with Itzhak Perlman at New York's Lincoln Center.
A Juilliard graduate, Haas blends extensive classical music training with accomplishment in a broad array of fiddle genres. Her album with Fraser, "Fire & Grace," won Best Album of the Year at the Scots Trad Music Awards in 2004.
"Haas can make her instrument sound like the drone of a hurdy-gurdy, the jangle of a guitar, or the thump of a string bass, and she can carry the tune of fast jigs and reels as well," noted The Times.
Special guest Wilmont Kahaialii will also perform at the show in a Scottish/Hawaiian tribute to Princess Kaiulani.
* Tickets are $30, plus applicable fees, available as other shows at the MACC listed above.