Like its namesake, Kevin Spacey’s The Usual Suspects character, Verbal Kint is full of surprises. The acoustic duo, saxophonist/vocalist Jammal “JT” Tarkington and guitarist Ryan Hall, blend spontaneity and self-consciousness, darkness and humor in their intimate, convivial sets.
The instrumentation is sparse. Hall’s percussive guitar is often the lone accompaniment to Tarkington’s emotive vocals. Hall’s playing is remarkably evocative, featuring jazz-tinged chord voicings, reggae-inspired rhythms and sensitivity to both the verbal content and the musical feel of Tarkington’s rock-, reggae- and hip-hop- influenced vocals, which suggest a huskier Bradley Nowell.
Verbal Kint is sometimes joined by collaborators on sax and trumpet and by artists who use the upstage wall as an easel, creating art that is auctioned off after the show. Tarkington explains that a Verbal Kint gig is “not just a regular thing"—it’s a unique experience, often in more than one medium and always in several musical genres.
The group began as a side project for Tarkington, of ska group Keyser Soze (another Usual Suspects-inspired name) and hip-hop act Who Cares. Hall was also busy with the jazz ensemble Medulla Oblongata and progressive-metal outfit Cranium.
Each member credits obvious influences (Mike Park, the Skatalites) and ones a bit further afield. For instance, Hall cites Iron Maiden and notes that metal taught him a good deal about writing songs in the traditional sense, which is challenging for a composer who usually doesn’t have to accommodate a singer. Tarkington, who loves Elliott Smith and Jimi Hendrix, is delighted to be playing for the first time in a band that builds on such artists’ work while embracing other musical traditions.
“Our style is all over the map,” Tarkington says, noting that Verbal Kint performs both original songs and a wide range of covers. The duo’s passionate version of “Talkin’ Blues” is notable, as is the tense Bad Brains cover “Why’d You Have to Go?”
The band’s stripped-down lineup presents particular challenges. While guitarists are front and center in many bands, Hall plays a “supplementary part” in the proceedings, providing bass lines and “drums” in the absence of a traditional rhythm section. Tarkington notes that playing with just Hall “has made me a lot better singer.” Both say that listening to one another is their most essential skill. Indeed, Verbal Kint’s greatest strength is the interplay between its members.
In audience favorite “Let it Go,” Hall’s guitar is tough and driving as Tarkington sings about shrugging off his feelings in public: “I build walls with these lies/When they ask I just reply/Well, it’s just some girl that I used to know.”
Later in the song, Tarkington switches to introspective rhyming as Hall’s guitar work becomes more intricate, mirroring Tarkington’s complex feelings, rationalizations and musings: “That’s when I rally with my brethren/To level my head/When I just can’t seem to figure it out/It’s that self-doubt/Revitalized by the set/I use emotion and reflect/To push through.”
"'Let it Go’ is about lying to yourself,” says Tarkington. “You really care, even though you say you don’t.”
Verbal Kint deals with serious issues, but its members are by no means dour. They consider humor essential to their work “to balance the songs,” as Tarkington says.