At age 15, Rebecca Kingsley, a native of the Portland area, assumed that as a budding young jazz and r&b vocalist she’d have to move away to find success. Probably to New York City. Which she did, not long after that.
“I knew very little about what was going on in Maine. I just knew I wanted to make a living as a musician and New York was the place to be,” said Kingsley.
More than a decade later, however, Kingsley, now 26, is back in Portland, armed with ten years of intense musical training, and with a new perspective on the music scene in her hometown. She’ll perform with acclaimed jazz guitarist Mark Whitfield and his band at 8 p.m. this Thursday, Jan. 15 at One Longfellow Square in Portland.
Kingsley, grew up in Scarborough, where her family constantly had music on. Where her peers were listening to alt-rock and pop music, she was singing along to Aretha Franklin and Bob Marley.
“My siblings and I were totally out of step with our peers,” said Kingsley. “Nobody back then listened to hip hop, but we did. We were listening to Motown. Soul. All kinds of stuff.”
Kingsley eventually attended Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, studying music, after which she moved to New York to attend the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. In the city, she absorbed countless musical styles — jazz, but also Latin music of all stripes.
After graduating in 2011, she recorded her first album, “Untouched,” which included a cover of the r&b classic “Killing Me Softly” recorded as a duet with Wyclef Jean, who, of course, made the song a hit again in the 1990s with the Fugees. Where the Fugees version of the song drew from hip hop, Kingsley and Jean’s version drew from bachata, a Dominican style of music. Inspired by her work with Jean and her exploration of Latin sounds, she recorded a full bachata album in the Dominican Republic in 2013, “Bachatera.”
Last year, however, Kingsley found herself burned out from the city, and decided to move home to Maine to get back on her feet. She assumed that her musical options in the state were extremely limited — but after meeting fellow Portlander Lyle Divinsky, an accomplished soul and r&b musician also splitting his time between the city and Maine, she came to realize there was a surprising amount of stuff out there.
“It was through him I met all these incredible jazz players in Portland, who’ve become mentors for me,” said Kingsley. “They’re real Mainers, and they are phenomenal musicians… they are jazz guys, but to me, being a jazz guy means you have this level of proficiency that gives you the freedom to play whatever you want. I want to make part of my next album here, because playing with them is just so loose and free.”
At her show on Friday, she’ll showcase some of her new songs with Mark Whitfield, a guitarist renowned in jazz circles for his intense soul-jazz playing. He’s worked with a who’s who of jazz, r&b and rock artists, from Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones and Wynton Marsalis to Mary J. Blige, D’Angelo, John Mayer and Dave Matthews Band.
“He’s just out of this world. He’s an alien. Watching him play is kind of mind-blowing,” said Kingsley. “It’s really a treat to have him here in Maine.”
Tickets for Thursday’s concert at One Longfellow Square are $20; for more information, visit www.rebeccakingsley.com.