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The new swing

Kevin Mahogany embraces the music of his time


Kevin Mahogany has been heralded as the heir apparent to the great male jazz vocalists of the past, from Johnny Hartman to Joe Williams. But if there is one thing he is not, it's a purist.

"I wasn't going to be a jazz snob because you're going to miss out on so much if you don't listen to other music," says Mahogany. "Gamble and Huff, Barrett Strong --- all these guys --- if you don't listen to them how can you even move forward? It's kind of like saying I only paint with brown."

Mahogany and pianist Cyrus Chestnut will headline the Jazz for the Park benefit concert at the Eastman Theatre. Proceeds from the concert will directly help the single-parent families who spend up to two years at Wilson Commencement Park.

Mahogany and Chestnut will be joined by Kendrick Oliver and the New Life Orchestra, a Boston-based group of 19 young musicians and vocalists who specialize in re-invigorating the big band genre. (The group's recent album, Welcome To New Life, is the most frenetic big-band album I've heard in years.) Along with tunes by Count Basie, the band often injects songs like "Someday We'll All Be Free" by Donny Hathaway.

Mahogany fits right in. His 10 albums to date are full of jazz standards to be sure. But he has also recorded songs by contemporary writers like Stevie Wonder and Al Kooper. A few years back, he released an entire album of Motown classics, and he doesn't see anything radical about that.

"It's no different from what any of the other male vocalists of the past were doing," he says. "They were covering the pop music of their day, which became our jazz standards. I don't see why I should be any different, so I cover the pop music of my day."

The day his Motown album was released he flew to Detroit and played it for Barrett Strong, the writer-arranger of many of Motown's hits. "He loved it," says Mahogany.

Mahogany, who sang in r&b groups to make a living after graduating from Baker University in Kansas, speaks of future projects including an album of tunes by the great songwriting team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff ("Me And Mrs. Jones," "Used Ta Be My Girl," etc.) and the songs of the Stax record label ("I Thank You," "Hold On, I'm Comin'," etc.)

The twist is he may perform these songs with a big band. Mahogany had his first big band experience when he was playing clarinet and saxophone at the age of 12. In recent years he's recorded several big band albums, including one with Eastman professor Bill Dobbins conducting. The last time he was in Rochester, he performed with a trio at the Rochester International Jazz Festival. Lately, he's gravitated back to the big band setting.

Although he grew up listening to the Temptations, the Spinners, and The Dramatics, Mahogany is not without jazz influences.

"The first vocal that I really dug was Al Jarreau's 'Look to the Rainbow,' which I thought was an incredible album," he says. "That was one of the first vocal jazz albums that I was blown away by."

Jazz For the Park features Kevin Mahogany and Cyrus Chestnut with Kendrick Oliver and the New Life Jazz Orchestra Saturday, October 15, in the Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs Street, 8 p.m. $20; $30 for preferred seating; $100 for patron tickets (including patron reception at the Hyatt Palladio Restaurant following the show. Free shuttle service will be provided.) 232-1900, 263-7952,