Professor and Maryann
Professor and Maryann, a/k/a Ken Rockwood and Danielle Brancaccio, were signed by Bar/None in 1993 after they were spotted opening a show in Manhattan for Freedy Johnston. It was only their fifth gig. They would have probably been discovered even sooner, but Ken and Danielle, both native New Yorkers, were living in the off-the-beaten-path environs of Staten Island at the time, and that's where they had decided to give their earlier performances.
Unlike most fledgling artists, Professor and Maryann never felt like beginners. Their sound, their approach, and their look were fully realized from the start. And all of it was totally their own: you couldn't easily slot them into a particular category, though there were elements of jazz, folk, blues, and pop in their work. And you couldn't exactly say where they came from, either -- what locale or even what decade -- though Staten Island proved to be exotic enough at the time, at least to hip Manhattanites. Their approach is just as fresh, just as singular, today, and that becomes clear from the spare, opening chords of "Lonesome Old World" on the pair's third album, a return to basics aptly titled Professor and Maryann.
Danielle handles most of the vocals and Ken accompanies her on his guitar (as well as on concertina and ukulele). The duo's greatest strength remains its simplicity, with Danielle's velvety vocals playing off Ken's gentle harmonies and subtle hooks. Think Wes Montgomery as a pop minimalist accompanying Rickie Lee Jones in some intimate, unmarked nightspot, and that might give you some idea. They could have snuck, Zelig-like, into Ken Burns' Jazz series somewhere between Billie at Birdland and the Birth of the Cool and no one would have raised an eyebrow.
When Professor and Maryann released their debut, Fairy Tale, in 1994, a year after their fateful gig with Freedy, an Alternative Press critic heralded them as "a Simon and Garfunkel for our age" -- if Garfunkel were a girl, that is. "Ken Rockwood plays the creative Svengali to the wispy cabaret vocal intimacies of Danielle Brancaccio." They continued to steal a bit of the spotlight opening shows for the likes of Jeff Buckley, Jewel, Luka Bloom, Kevin Ayers, The Cardigans, and even comedian Howie Mandel, to name a few. NYC DJ and tastemaker Vin Scelsa invited them on Idiots Delight and Peter Bochan of WBAI hosted them on All Mixed Up. Their songs also began to appear in a number of films and television productions.
Two years later, Professor and Maryann put out Lead Us Not Into Penn Station, which drew another round of praise and admiration from the critics. A pundit for the Houston Press thought the album truly had something for everyone: "the sophisticated sway of jazz, the earnest phrasing of folk, the easy listening atmospherics of New Age, the familiar refrains of cabaret-style show tunes, the throwaway hooks of novelty pop." An equally smitten Aquarian writer called the record an "enchanted world of soft chords and sweet airy vocals."
It's been five years since that sophomore effort. During that time, Ken and Danielle have built a loyal following in New York City and beyond, and they've experimented with all sorts of line-ups and approaches incorporating musical elements from classic rock to trip hop. At one point, the group expanded to seven pieces, including a hard-rocking guitarist, a cellist, and a vibes player. But the simplest approach proved once again to be the best. Last summer, Ken and Danielle went on their own into a couple top-of-the-line recording studios in New York City and, with excellent microphones and top engineering, worked up the same sort of haunting, bare-bones arrangements that first got them signed. The result of their labor, Professor and Maryann, is their very own Nebraska with a New York State of mind. An elegant noise to accompany the dim, quiet spaces between the skyscrapers. Professor and Maryann are no castaways, but they've found an island to call their own.
Lead Us Not Into Penn Station
Ken Rockwood and Danielle Brancaccio stripped things down when they paired up as Professor and Maryann. They were discovered by the Bar None executives at the legendary CBGB's in Manhattan. Bar None executives were there to see the act that followed Professor and Maryann but "signed them on the spot because of their good songs, good singing, and overall performance. Ken's a great writer and Danielle brings a lot of imagination and feeling to the songs."
The band had barely been together when they recorded their debut album, "Fairy Tale," but they had two years of gigs behind them when they cut their second album, "Lead Us Not Into Penn Station." The album features the duo alternately singing lead while Ken backs them up on his tried and true 1949 Gretsch Synchromatic guitar. The duo added some background music to "Lead Us Not Into Penn Station" featuring producer Tony Ellis Aiello playing the occasional and complimentary flute, sax, keyboards and accordion; Graham Maby on bass, and percussion by Gary Burke, (All three are alumni of Joe Jackson's band).
The inside cover of "Lead Us Not Into Penn Station" is filled with interesting touches. The songs are arrayed by the liner notes as a series of vignettes as seen upon approach of New York City's Pennsylvania Station. Ken's words paired with Danielle's eight vibrant paintings, earned the album cover praise of its own.
Professor (Ken Rockwood) and Maryann (Danielle Brancaccio) bring together a refreshingly original blend of talent. Using one guitar and two voices, they sing pristine elegant arrangements of original music. Ken's writing abilities include simple love songs with a depth of emotion exhibited in a heart-on-sleeve style as in "I Keep The Moon In My Car" and well as hip tone poems such as "The Only Cool Spot In Town" - a song KIOT-FM aired for months and referred to as "one of the overlooked classics of 1994." Danielle exhibits a subtle, serene, often shy style that lends a certain poignancy to the music.
Danielle was the backup vocalist in the eight piece band Ken founded several years back. Recognizing each other's talents, they decided to work as a duo. Their partnership blossomed after their 5th gig, when the Bar None executives, attending a performance at the legendary CBGB's in Manhattan, were sold after seeing/hearing just one of their originals.
Fairy Tale was produced by Fernando Kral who also did the Drink Me album for Bar None. The album's guest musicians include bassist Graham Maby and saxophonist Tony Ellis, both of whom have played with Joe Jackson, Marshall Crenshaw and Graham Parker as well as Roger Squitero, percussionist for the Rolling Stones.