Kenny Washington killed in New York City. The supremely soulful Oakland-based jazz vocalist played a weeklong run last February at Jazz at Lincoln Center's prestigious Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola with vibraphonist Joe Locke's all-star band. The show featured the music of Henry Mancini, and Washington walked away with the audience in his pocket.
"He put himself into these very complex instrumental arrangements, and he fit into them hand in glove," says Locke, arguably the most brilliant vibraphonist of his generation. "In every case, he sang them in the original key. That's how flexible he is. We had fourteen sold-out shows at Dizzy's, and the audiences fell in love with him."
The thing is, Washington slays 'em wherever he performs. Standing not quite five-foot-two, he's an oversize talent who can scat with the harmonic daring and rhythmic command of a bebop saxophonist, croon with the simmering soul of Donny Hathaway, and interpret standards with such intelligence and emotional commitment it's like Rodgers and Hart wrote "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" with him in mind.
The fact that he's not better known stems partly from the fact that the 51-year-old singer recently released his first album, Live at Anna's Jazz Island. He celebrates the release of his debut CD on Saturday with a return engagement at Anna DeLeón's downtown Berkeley jazzspot, performing with the album's excellent cast of players, including pianist Glen Pearson, bassist Ron Belcher, and powerhouse drummer Deszon X. Claiborne.
"It's the first under my name," Washington says during an afternoon conversation at Peet's Coffee on Fourth Street. "I'm still getting used to that. I had a lot of help. A very good friend of mine Melva Young decided to take a chance on me. It's long overdue, but I've never been a good promoter of myself. You have to be aggressive and get in people's face all the time. I'm just not like that. I'm from the South, easygoing, and don't want to bug anybody."
Instead of Washington blowing his own horn, a disparate cast of musicians has taken it upon themselves to champion him, including singers Kim Nalley and Mark Murphy, who recently declared, "Kenny's got the gift." Body percussionist Keith Terry showcases Washington in the wondrous a cappella ensemble Slammin, and saxophonist Michael O'Neill has built an entire repertoire around Washington's extraordinary ability to sing unison lines with horns. Last year O'Neill's quintet with Washington released Still Dancin', a consistently enthralling album featuring Joe Locke as a special guest (the group plays Yoshi's on Dec. 8).
"Kenny's one of the very greatest living male vocalists, without a doubt," Locke says. "He's a sublime storyteller and exquisite balladeer. I love his familiarity with R&B, with Donny Hathaway, Sam Cooke, and Marvin Gaye and how he can inject that feeling into the American Songbook in a very mature way."
Locke is hardly the first to rave about Washington or to bring him to New York City. In the late '90s, he was one of the featured vocalists in saxophonist Roy Nathanson's jazz theater production Fire at Keaton's Bar & Grill. Washington performed at the New York City premiere as part of a glittering cast with Elvis Costello, Deborah Harry, and Nancy King, and then went on the road for several European performances. While the show never picked up the backing required for an extended theatrical run, San Francisco-based Six Degrees Records documented the production with an excellent cast album.
A New Orleans native, Washington first started singing in church, where his parents were both choir members. Jazz caught his interest during his senior year of high school, when clarinet legend Alvin Batiste performed at his school with a band of students, including two precociously talented brothers named Branford and Wynton Marsalis. He spent several years studying music at Xavier University, singing pop, classical, R&B, and jazz, paying particular attention to Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Mel Tormé.
Washington joined the Navy in the mid-1980s, and after a couple of years auditioned for a band, a gig that took him to clubs and naval bases around the world. On one stop in San Francisco, he dropped by Jazz at Pearl's and sat in with drummer Vince Lateano's house band. When he left the service in 1995 and processed out at Treasure Island he decided to stay in the area. Washington has supported himself as a musician ever since, but knows that his deep-seated reticence hasn't been good for his career.
"I'm in the wrong business to have that kind of an attitude," Washington says. "You have to go out there and grab what you want. I've been here long enough that there are a lot of people pushing me to get out there. You'd think I'd know better by now, but I just can't get used to it. Hopefully this CD will make a change."
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