Kenny Rankin, Inside

Britt Robson

By Britt Robson

on 06.15.11 in Reviews

Those of us who repair to Inside in the wake of Kenny Rankin's death from lung cancer in early June of 2009 are given solace by how durable its charms have remained since its recording in 1975. Possessed with an exquisitely gentle voice that balanced a jazz singer's thirst for improvisation with a folk singer's emotional attachment to the lyrics, Rankin covers Louis Prima and Jimi Hendrix, Randy Newman and Stevie Wonder, and pens a ballad that's the best thing on the disc.

Exquisitely gentle, emotional jazz singing from a late legend

The session musicians are absolutely top-notch — Steve Cropper, Waddy Wachtel and Bill Champlin divide up the guitar parts, for instance — and Jimmy Haskell's string arrangements are rich but not overbearing. After an unexceptional cover of Wonder's "Creepin'," Rankin delivers a pair of gorgeous originals wonderfully abetted by vibraphonist Gary Burton: the melismatic title track and the shimmering, plainspoken paean "Lost Up In Lovin' You," that may be his best-ever singer-songwriter moment. He boldly revises John Sebastian's "She's A Lady" with elastic vocal gymnastics that dilute the sugary sentiment of the original a perfect tad, and conversely injects just the right amount of additional romantic sincerity into Newman's sodden testimonial, "Marie."

Not everything is feathery, however. "The Feeling" boasts the sort of sleek, disco-fied soul that made Boz Scaggs's Silk Degrees a smash a year later. Prima's "A Sunday Kind of Love" goes to church on William "Smitty" Smith's organ and gets goosed by creamy-snazzy female backup vocals that sound like the Andrews Sisters in sniffing distance of the Holy Spirit. And "Roll-A-Round" is a silly, mid-album gambol, sung a cappella by Rankin and his family. Finally, if you want to hear the 60s-era impressionistic poetry of Hendrix's "Up From the Skies," better than the mumbled vocal on the original, this is the place. When Rankin sings, "I want to know about this new Mother Earth/I want to see and hear everything," you simultaneously feel his yearning and marvel at his vocal soft shoe.