As a child, GayeLynn McKinney woke every morning to the sound of her parents making music. As her father played piano, her mother’s operatic-trained voice filled the room. Afterwards, GayeLynn and her father would sit down at a cassette recorder for their daily “philosophical discussions.”
During one of these conversations, 9-year-old GayeLynn delivered a fantastic tale that started out about a boy who liked her and quickly spun into a story about the boy being a spy. When her father pressed her on its truth, she sang in defense, “This is truuue, this is truuue, this is truue…”.
“My father gave me a lesson on truth that day,” GayeLynn remembers with a laugh as big and warm as a deep pocket.
She couldn’t have imagined, all those years ago, that the recording would someday be seamlessly woven into one of her father’s compositions, and their interaction would become the opening piece to her most personal musical project to date.
Detroit Music Factory’s release of GayeLynn’s newest record, McKinFolk: The New Beginning, is an ode to her father’s musical legacy. GayeLynn’s father, the late Harold McKinney, was a world renowned-pianist and pioneering music educator. He played with such giants as John Coltrane, Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, Sarah Vaughn and too many others to name. His influence as a Detroit jazz icon can be witnessed among his many protégés, some of whom have gone on to become Detroit’s most esteemed jazz musicians. Among those talents, his daughter GayeLynn has carved her own musical identity as an accomplished drummer, composer and arranger. From co-founding Straight Ahead, the all-female, Grammy-nominated jazz ensemble that was signed to Atlantic Records in the 90s, to her more recent work with world-class stars such as Aretha Franklin, GayeLynn’s presence as an artist is strongly rooted in Detroit’s historical jazz community and impacts a worldwide audience. McKinFolk: The New Beginning, which was made possible in part by a Kresge Fellowship Award in 2014 and generous Kickstarter and Indiegogo donations, takes its name from Harold’s ever-morphing musical “family” group.
“The thing about McKinFolk is that it's made up of movable parts,” said GayeLynn in a Metro Times interview leading up to her performance at the 2017 Detroit Jazz Festival. Like her father’s project, McKinFolk the album is much more than a gathering of the many talented musicians of the McKinney clan, it’s a celebration of the close bond between a community of musicians that spans beyond generations and bloodlines. At her Jazz Fest performance, the “family” included Dwight Adams, Marcus Elliot, Vincent Chandler, Marion Hayden, Glenn Tucker, Michelle McKinney and Regina Carter. “Next time you see the group,” said GayeLynn, “it may be a different set of people.”
All but one of the cuts on McKinFolk are her father’s original compositions, but the producing is distinctly GayeLynn. Some of the songs bring life to compositions that have never been recorded before now.
The one exception is Eddie Harris’ Freedom Jazz Dance, which featured vocals by her father and her mother, the late Gwendolyn McKinney, when it was recorded for Harold’s 1974 Tribe release Voices and Rhythms of the Creative Profile. On McKinFolk, GayeLynn’s ensemble charges into Freedom Jazz Dance with as much fearless exploration as her father’s group did on the 70s release. It features GayeLynn delivering the vocals on the verses and hook, and a scat solo by Kevin Mahogany.
The pieces are often beautifully melodic, like Buddy Budson’s arrangement on Nostalgia, which was originally released as a piano piece when Harold recorded it on the album Root Classics. On McKinFolk however, the cut features lyrics written and sung by Michelle McKinney (or “Mama Jarah,” as GayeLynn affectionately refers to her stepmom).
But of all the remarkable musical snapshots that make up the album, it’s the West African rhythms of Ode to Africa, which opens the record with the childhood exchange between father and daughter, that most joyfully delivers a musical candor that is as moving as it is exciting.
At its heart, McKinFolk is a family album with inspired, bold portraits. It’s an accomplished work that reflects the tender lessons with which her father blessed her—lessons which she so clearly learned well.
“This is truuue, this is truuue, this is truue…”