There’s a saying in the music business that a band has its entire life to make its debut album, and about six months to make the second. It’s a generalization, obviously, but the landscape is littered with bands who make a big splash with their first record and then put out a follow-up that doesn’t have the same magic.
That’s the position that Charleston’s Ranky Tanky could have found itself in when it was time to record the follow-up to its wildly successful 2017 self-titled debut. Vocalist Quiana Parler, trumpeter Charlton Singleton, drummer Quentin Baxter, guitarist Clay Ross and bassist Kevin Hamilton formed Ranky Tanky in 2016 in order to celebrate the music of the Gullah, a culture that originated among descendants of enslaved Africans in the Lowcountry of South Carolina.
Gullah music, largely driven by vocals and percussion, was a huge influence on the development of American gospel and jazz. In fact, songs like “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” and “Kum Bay Yah” can be traced directly back to the Gullah people.
Ranky Tanky took that traditional music and ran with it on its first album, creating a joyful blend of gospel-style vocals, jazz-friendly improvisation and infectious rhythms. And after an appearance on the NPR program Fresh Air with Terry Gross, the band caught on like wildfire, hitting No. 1 on the Billboard Jazz Album Chart, winning praise from prestigious publications like DownBeat magazine and headlining sold-out shows across the country.
“We were just kind of shocked about how fast it went from zero to a hundred miles an hour,” Singleton admits, “especially after the NPR piece with Terry Gross. It was all a surprise for us in terms of how quickly things escalated. We were really just feeling happy and blessed that we had this tremendous opportunity.”
So how do you handle the pressure of following up one of the hottest jazz records of the last few years?
Well, if you’re Ranky Tanky, you take some of the non-album material you play on stage, mix in some more traditional Gullah tunes and original songs, head into Truphonic Studios in Charleston and make an album called Good Time that once again rules the jazz charts and gets a Grammy nomination for Best Regional Roots Music Album.
Good Time, which came out last July, both compares well to the debut album and lives up to its title, mixing stomping, percussion-heavy vamps, gospel-style workouts and light, fleet-footed jazz playing into an easy-rolling, vocal-harmony-drenched jam session.
Ranky Tanky avoids the sophomore jinx for a few reasons. The first is that the members mapped out their second album extensively before going into the studio.
“The production was led by our drummer Quentin Baxter, who had a really solid plan for us with regards to how we were going to record which songs, what order we were going to record in, and how we were going to lay all of the tracks down,” Singleton says. “It was just a really easy process for us the way that he created it.”
Another piece of the puzzle was the location. Singleton says there was no place like home when it came time to record.
“There was never any question that we were going to make this album at Truphonic,” he offers. “We’ve all had good and positive experiences there, so it just seemed like it was a natural fit. There’s a great team that runs the studio, and it’s a good room that’s got good equipment. It just was a logical choice.”
The band’s level of experience played a huge role, as well. Before they formed Ranky Tanky, everyone in the group already had an impressive amount of experience.
For years, Singleton served as the music director and conductor of the Charleston Jazz Orchestra while also staying busy as a sideman and a bandleader for his own projects. Parler has worked with some of pop music’s biggest names, including producers Walter Afanasieff and David Foster, and she appeared on albums by Clay Aiken, Bianca Ryan and Renee Olstead, among others. Ross (who founded the band) and Hamilton were veterans of Charleston’s jazz scene, and Baxter’s work as a drummer, producer and engineer spans dozens of albums, including releases by Lee Ritenour and Noel Freidline.
“I think the more experience that you have, the better prepared you are down the line,” Singleton posits. “You have all of these learning experiences that you revert back to in order to help you through whatever situation that you’re presently in. I think all of us have learned from every situation that we have been a part of and remembered what worked and what didn’t work for us individually.”
What: Ranky Tanky (part of the Carolina Shout jazz series)
Where: Harbison Theatre, 7300 College St., Irmo
When: Saturday, Jan. 18, 7:30 p.m.
More: 803-407-5011, harbisontheatre.org