Kenny Washington: a soaring tenor who can evoke Stevie Wonder

By Andrew Gilbert

The Bay Area is blessed with an exceptionally deep pool of jazz vocal talent, but, even among the dozen or so singers who tour and perform nationally and abroad, Kenny Washington stands out as an extraordinary talent.

A soulful crooner whose soaring tenor can evoke Stevie Wonder, Washington interprets American Songbook standards with swinging authority and scats with the harmonic sophistication and rhythmic dexterity of a bebop alto saxophonist.

His musical peers tend to talk about him in eager superlatives, though Washington seems almost embarrassed by his oversized gift, which partly explains the disjunction between his reputation and his commercial standing.

Which isn’t to say the New Orleans native hasn’t enjoyed several brushes with jazz fame since settling in the Bay Area in 1995. Most tantalizingly, saxophonist Roy Nathanson’s featured Washington at the Manhattan premiere of his jazz theater production “Fire at Keaton’s Bar & Grill” with Elvis Costello, Deborah Harry, and Nancy King, a production that made the rounds in Europe but never picked up enough backing for an extended theatrical run (San Francisco’s Six Degrees Records documented the show on an excellent cast album).

More recently, Washington has gained national attention with New York vibraphone master Joe Locke, who crafted a gorgeous set of arrangements around his voice on last year’s “For the Love of You” (E1 Music).

San Francisco bassist/composer Marcus Shelby designed his recent, spiritually charged album “Soul of the Movement: Meditations on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” (Porto Franco) around Washington and Faye Carol (a story for another day).

There’s no better place to catch Washington up close than the Jazzschool in Berkeley, where he performs tomorrow, Friday 22nd at 8 p.m, with piano ace John R. Burr, bass master Jeff Chambers and rising drum star Lorca Hart. For details, visit the Jazzschool website.

Andrew Gilbert, a West Berkeley resident, covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and East Bay Express.

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