Release Date:
October 28, 2008

Reviewed by:
Anne Aufderheide
One of my all time favorite tracks is “The Moroccan Junction” from Pensyl Sketches #1 (1988) Remember?  It got me thinking…where in the world has Kim Pensyl been? 

It’s been over 10 years since I’ve heard of a new Kim Pensyl recording. He simply dropped off my radar. Rumor had it that he switched back to playing trumpet. 

Well, he’s back on piano and keyboards and better than ever, on his 14th album, When Katie Smiles, released October 28th from Penton Music Productions.  I’m pleased to report, this artist still has incredible chops. The album is filled with gorgeous melodies, sophisticated harmonies, deep grooves, and superb sound production qualities. Pensyl’s keyboard artistry has grown and flourished over the years, pure listening pleasure.

This is Pensyl’s first contemporary jazz recording in a decade. He is playing with a talented backing band consisting of Andy Woodson on bass, drummer Reggie Jackson, electric and acoustic guitars from Kevin Turner, and Jim Ed Cobbs on percussion.  The players comingle with Pensyl’s keyboards, never stepping on or overwhelming the melodies yet freely interacting and improvising. 

Although he has played trumpet and piano throughout his career, Pensyl’s instrumental voice on When Katie Smiles is the piano and keyboards.  He produced the album giving his quartet a live sound. An ingenious composer, Pensyl’s melodies are joyous, contemplative, heartfelt and eloquent, thoughtfully yet organically given space to breathe, unfold, and flow in uncluttered arrangements.

Commenting on the inspiration behind his new album, Kim Pensyl says, “The distance one travels in life is greatly enhanced not only by those that travel with him, but those he meets along the way.  Happiness is deepened by the enrichment that family and friends can bring.  We receive that joy not only by giving to one another, but in receiving.  That joy is what I feel ‘When Katie Smiles’ at me.”

The CD opens with the cheerful title cut “When Katie Smiles.”  Within seconds of its beginning, I knew I was being treated to signature Kim Pensyl.  “Slap Happy” has an amazing groove, at once funky and quirky.  It has been selected as the first track sent to radio and is now garnering airplay across the country. 

“Where’d Love Go?” is a majestic tribute to romance, one of the loveliest tracks on the record.  The upbeat “Here Comes The Rain” feels like classic Pensyl, yet his playing and composing reveal much more maturity and seasoned artistry.

The peaceful “Grand Lake” carries an exquisite melody line, along with some pleasant nature sound effects.  Pensyl’s delicate touch on the keys is very beautiful.  Pensyl’s lyrical piano poetry takes us on a stroll “Beside The Shallow Pond.” It includes a delicious guitar solo from Kevin Turner.  “Gentlewind Dr.” is named for the street on which the artist lives. The inviting feeling permeating the melody is quite heartwarming.

Opening with a strong bass presence, “Summer Days” is yet another highly melodic tune, tenderly played by Pensyl and the band.  Another fine guitar solo from Turner, along with stand out percussion, fill out the track.

Like many of Pensyl’s compositions, “Once Again” seamlessly unites simplicity with sophistication and intelligence. As the end of the track nears, Pensyl and band bring on a lush flourish and crescendo – very lovely. Throughout the course of “On This Day,” the tempo and mood of the piano vacillates, but the dependable rhythm section serves as the underlying pulse to provide continuity throughout.  Bringing the collection to a close is “Love Comes First” with its easygoing, sweet melody.  The overall experience is most uplifting, leaving me feeling good.  Kim Pensyl, welcome back!  You have been missed.

“As on all my albums, When Katie Smiles is about communicating feelings born of my life experiences.  This makes each album something very personal, emotional and expressive, but it also makes me a bit apprehensive since I put myself in such a vulnerable position by sharing my feelings so openly.  However, the chance to communicate deeply with listeners is certainly worth the risk.  It creates a bond of understanding that I treasure,” explained Pensyl.  “My music is a positive light, deeply committed, and is offered with sincerity in the hope it will bring joy to others by sharing part of my life.”

In case he hasn’t come across your radar, a Columbus, Ohio native, Pensyl’s lust for music was born in the musical heyday of the late 1960s and early 1970s.  He first picked up the trumpet and extensively studied composition, arranging, production, engineering, and performing.  He explored various music genres with fervor from jazz, big band, chamber, and orchestral to rock, R&B, and pop.  After graduating The Ohio State University School of Music with honors, Pensyl moved to Southern California where he earned a Master’s degree in composition. Afterwards, Pensyl worked in the Los Angeles area with a wide variety of bands including those led by Al Hirt, Don Ellis, Hubert Laws, Gerald Wilson and Louie Bellson; he even played trumpet with Guy Lombardo! After a few years of studio work, in 1988, he began his solo career. He returned to Columbus after gaining valuable experience on the road performing and writing arrangements for various touring groups.  Pensyl captained his own band at local gigs and also played solo piano dates.  This led to the recording of his debut album, Pensyl Sketches #1, which was released twenty years ago.  In 1989, ASCAP named him “Best New Jazz Writer” and two years later, NARM selected Pensyl Sketches #3 as “Jazz Album of the Year.”  Twice, Pensyl made Billboard’s top 20 “Contemporary Jazz Artists of the Year.”The dedicated family man, who still wields the trumpet and piano, has recorded with Toots Thielemans, Joey Calderazzo, Steve Rodby, Chieli Minucci, Alex Acuna, Adam Nussbaum, Andy Narell, Chuck Bergeron and Will Kennedy among others.  He’s toured extensively throughout the world and has performed with his band at venues such as The Blue Note, Blues Alley, Scullers, The Clearwater Jazz Festival, Sunfest, Summerfest, The Beacon Theater, Caravan of Dreams, Stone Mountain Jazz Festival, Pacific Jazz Festival and The Great American Music Hall.  He appeared on PBS, BET Jazz and Mexico TV.  His 14 albums are diverse collections of modern acoustic jazz, contemporary jazz, solo piano renderings, and even Christmas music.  He has more than 100 published works recorded and over 150 compositions and arrangements in his catalog.

He shares his wisdom, experience and love of jazz with students at College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati where he is a prized part of the Jazz Studies program following four years as a faculty member at the music school at The Ohio State University. Remaining a wide-eyed student of music himself, Pensyl took on the role of teacher in 2000 when he accepted a faculty position at The Ohio State University.  Four years later, he joined the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati where he is an integral part of the Jazz Studies program.  Pensyl writes for and performs with guest artists at the university such as Arturo Sandoval, Bob Mintzer and Terri Lyne Carrington.  He enjoys sharing his immense knowledge, vast experience, and great love of music with his students.  Enthused and committed to challenging himself in his writing and performance, Pensyl is the featured artist in the WJZA Smooth Jazz Trio around Central Ohio and also performs at various clubs and concerts. He is anxious to take the band out on the national circuit in support of When Katie Smiles.  Additional information is available at