A year ago, Ken Slavinworried that he was losing his voice.
He’d been diagnosed with acid-reflux and found himself struggling to lay down acceptable vocal tracks for the long-awaited follow-up to his 2001 album, The Song is You.
“I had moments during the whole process where I got kinda down,” says Slavin, San Antonio’s preeminent interpreter of jazz-pop standards. “I’d go in for six hours and work on a couple of tunes and everything would sound bad and we’d have to scrap it all.”
For the first time, however, Slavin had an outside producer working with him in the studio, and that producer, Jazz Protagonists pianist Barry Brake, relentlessly lifted Slavin’s confidence whenever it started flagging.
Slavin and Brake had known each other since 1990, when Slavin, then a 29-year-old St. Mary’s grad with a background in journalism and public relations, indulged his long-held dream of becoming a jazz singer, and Brake launched the Jazz Protagonists. They crossed paths frequently over the years, but didn’t get to know each other well until last year, when Slavin told the respected pianist/composer about his ideas for a new album, and Brake asked him who was going to produce it.
Slavin responded that he always produced his own albums. But Brake wondered who would help to shape the arrangements, and who would be an advocate for Slavin’s vision in the recording studio. “He really wanted to do it,” Slavin says, “and I was blown away because he’s such a talent. I haven’t had that sort of team approach to my music before.”
The finished product of Slavin’s smooth baritone and Brake’s gentle prodding is I’ll Take Romance, a seductive 16-song collection that features both the lushest textures (particularly with the string-laden bookends “Thoughts of Your Smile” and “I’ll Take Romance”) and the most intimate, casual vibe ever heard on a Slavin album.
Slavin has always taken his time between releases, preferring to let a concept slowly unfold in his mind before venturing into a recording studio. He’s always imposed a definite set of rules on himself before embarking on a new project: that it sound different from anything he’s previously recorded, that he feels he’s made a leap forward as a vocalist, and that he has a unifying theme for the material. “No one can ever accuse me of flooding the market with product,” he says with a laugh.
For Slavin, a major part of the creative process consists of sifting through his hundreds of vinyl LPs and searching for songs that speak to him (he’s resisted “millions” of requests over the years for “My Way,” because he doesn’t believe its “end-is-near” sentiment suits him). He accumulated a list of 40 contenders for I’ll Take Romance, before sitting down with his band and Brake and shaving off more than half of the possible tunes.
More than most contemporary interpreters of the Great American Songbook, Slavin delights in turning his material sideways, making even the most familiar tunes sound like new discoveries. A prime example on I’ll Take Romance comes with “Tea For Two,” a song done to death for more than 80 years as a breezy, old-soft-shoe shuffle. Slavin and Brake, however, slow the song down to a dead crawl, and its yearning, emotional core miraculously reveals itself. For listeners, the effect is a bit like finding a diamond in a peanut shell.
They take a similar tack with “I Could Have Danced All Night,” a boisterous staple of Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady. Slavin’s recording owes nothing to memories of Audrey Hepburn’s lip-synch treatment in the 1964 film adaptation. Slavin’s performance feels like a slow, sultry, 3 a.m. capper to a night in which considerably more than dancing took place.
Conversely, he speeds up “Come Rain or Come Shine” with a tough, bluesy treatment, and brings a lighter-than-air swing to Cole Porter’s reflective “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home to.”
The album also allows Slavin to celebrate his private worship of Connie Francis, an admiration that he kept in the closet for years because he knew that his jazz-musician friends would find her corny and unhip.
“I’ve become more open about it as I’ve gotten older,” he says. “I learned a lot of standards to her records. She had her hit stuff, and some of it was very bubblegum, but her concept albums had her singing with big bands and more mature stuff.”
For this album, Slavin dusted off an obscure Francis b-side called “I Can’t Reach Your Heart,” which had previously been covered only once, by ABBA singer Agnetha Faltskog. When Slavin played Francis’s reverb-drenched original recording for Brake and pianist Morris Nelms, Nelms responded that it sounded like something from an old Star Trek episode, “with a beautiful green alien singing on a planet somewhere to Captain Kirk.”
Slavin celebrates the release of I’ll Take Romance with an August 27 show at El Tropicano (coinciding with his 46th birthday), and he’s already plotting future projects with Brake: a modern-day version of Julie London’s stripped-down Julie At Home; Spanish and Italian albums; a Ray Charles-like country-pop hybrid; and even a reworking ’80s pop hits (such as Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams”) in Slavin’s style.
“I’ve never wanted anyone to categorize me as just being a covers singer,” Slavin says. “I get that sometimes from people who don’t understand the elements of jazz. They don’t understand that jazz is an interpretive art and it’s not always about writing an original song. It’s about taking something established and making it your own: maybe altering the meaning or the mood of it. I don’t think there’s a song on the album that anyone does quite the way we do it.” •
Ken Slavin: CD-Release Concert
6-9pm Mon, Aug 27