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Discussion With Tom Kennedy

Tom is a brilliant musician. Being the driving force behind the Dave Weckl band for the last six years has obviously put his musical skills through many tests, and if you’ve caught him live (or You-tubed) you can see how at ease he is twisting through a multitude of genres and laying out a flawless foundation for every one of them. It also bears mentioning that beyond some great compositions, Dave and his cohorts present within the course of an evening, improvisation is a serious part of this unit’s makeup, and Tom’s improvisational voice not only displays jaw-dropping technical ability, but is equally rich in harmonic complexity as well.

His credits beyond the Weckl band, which consist of artists such as Chick Corea, Steps Ahead, Lee Ritenour, Al DiMeola, Dave Sanborn, Alan Pasqua, and Joe Sample just to name a few, show the diversity he’s capable of and the obvious respected position he holds within the bass community. Add to that two critically acclaimed solo CD’s and you have one very complete player that takes his musicianship seriously and has carved out a very recognizable voice on his instrument as well.

Jake: I know in your younger days your focus was strictly on upright for a period of time. I’m always curious on whether that cross-over to electric is somehow enhanced after first kind of seeing things through the eyes of an acoustic.

Tom: Definitely. I have a lot of students, kind of all over the world, and in a lot of cases I find out that most electric players don’t really delve into upright, which I think is a big mistake. For one thing you don’t have the help of the frets to keep you in tune, and I know that’s a very basic aspect. But for me, getting the sound of the pitches correctly in your head really helps me to focus on ideas. I’ve listened to a lot of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, a lot of horn players, and I tried to emulate them, which of course I still do, and I think it’s really important to grasp the timbres of those notes, which I do on upright of course. I noticed that when I made the switch over to electric I didn’t rely on the fret as much as just where my hand would go, and where the focus would be to get to these places as far as things like alternate fingerings. I tried to keep things under my hand as much as possible. The other aspect of that for me is just the physical standpoint of the instrument. I found I had a great deal of stamina on the electric as a result of playing the upright. The upright is a much more demanding instrument physically.

Jake: Did you find yourself gravitating toward fretless when you first went to the electric?

Tom: You know it’s funny; I actually had a fretless in the beginning. My dad had a music store for a long time and I remember a guy brought in a fretless bass, which was actually a pretty interesting instrument. I believe it was made in Italy. It was an easier transition for me to go to that. I was actually playing both at that time, and was trying to do different things on different instruments. I was also really influenced by the Fender jazz bass sound as well. A lot of the more popular players were playing jazz basses at that time, live, and in the studio, and P basses as well, and I really got into that sound and wanted to emulate that sound as much as I could. When I did get a call play electric bass, I would take the fretless because I was more comfortable not having the frets. Plus there was a certain thing about playing straight ahead music that I found the fretless seemed to work best with, although later on I kind of developed a style and sound on the fretted bass as well. Now, as a utility instrument, I’d definitely take the fretted bass everywhere because it fits into any circumstance I come upon.

Jake: OK, I promise you I don’t go here often, but I’d like to talk a little bit about your technique, which is at a very high level. I certainly want to acknowledge the fact that technique is simply a tool to convey a much greater message, but at some point you obviously put some thought into quote unquote technique, and I would be open to hearing any concepts you could share on how you developed it.

Tom: It’s a funny thing about technique. My brother is a world-class pianist and has played all over the world, and we often talk about that, and it’s interesting because our technique is so based on what we play, so much more than the idea of cultivating this great technique to be able to use for whatever comes up. I really never thought of technique that way. I always thought of technique as a way to get the ideas out that I’m hearing. A lot of what I do technically is based around the ideas I play. I may even develop a new technique for something that I’m learning, which is always fun for me. It keeps expanding the technical prowess of the instrument for me, and I learn new things about the instrument. I have to say that on the whole, everything that I’ve done technically is based around the things that I’m trying to learn. I practiced a lot of melodies, a lot of bop heads and things like that. I thought it was so funny when that whole Donna Lee thing came about, because there were so many guys doing that thing already, as far as learning bop heads and things like that, just to develop more technique. I always thought that it was more important to play ideas over changes, or to be able to play a certain kind of feeling over something. As far as I’m concerned, even playing grooves has so much to do with technique because there are so many subtleties involved. Technique can be broken down into so many categories. For me, it was always just trying to reach a musical goal more than anything else. I was always more concerned with being able to play over a set of chord changes adeptly, and from that, I think the technique just kind of came.

bassist tom kennedy

Jake: Along those same lines, with someone who owns such an accomplished improvisational voice like yourself, it’s hard for me not to repeat the age old question of how did your improvisational chops and concept come about for you.

Tom: Whenever I was in a classroom situation talking about the theoretical aspects of things…theory is always an interesting thing, I’m reminded of what and old friend of mine once said—“theory is basically one person’s theory”—it’s one set of rules that somebody came up with that works, and everything else is supposedly kind of derived from that. I’ve always felt that my theory had to be based more in a musical term than a theoretical term, just in the sense that I wanted to hear my way through things. I played with Michael Breaker for a few years in Steps Ahead in the eighties, and I remember we used to have little conversations about that kind of thing, and it was always that sensibility of whatever you worked on, you would forget it on the bandstand. Play it by ear, which was what he and I would talk about a lot, and he and I were in total agreement on it. What you’ve studied are the tools to get you there, and I think that’s used more for someone who wants to analyze what somebody is doing.  I think if you can hear what somebody is doing, or what their intent is, you’re on the right track. For me, it wasn’t necessary to go into the nuts and bolts of that because I already knew in most cases what was thought of, or what the idea was, more or less where that came from. I think there are certain aspects of theory that that aren’t talked about enough … the composition, and how to put together a solo, or one thing to the next.  A lot of that is left out in more academic circles. It’s about being able to take ideas and put them together in a way that makes sense, a way that tells a story, a way to build a thought over the course of the solo, or over the course of a walking bass line. I talk to my students a lot about a walking bass line and how to have it makes sense. I never do that in a theoretical aspect. I talk about direction, whether you’re ascending or descending, how you want to do that, how much of the range of the bass do you want to fit in within a certain span of time. And then there’s the idea of doing something that’s totally off the wall, that creates a tension as far as walking, or even a solo idea.  Bottom line is, I never think about things through a theoretical aspect, I’ve always just listened to people and then try to absorb as much musical information as I can. It seems when I hear somebody playing a lot of licks or patterns, its just sounds that way, it’s not melodic, and I try to steer clear of that.

Jake: Recently, I heard there is a blog out there speaking about Jeff Berlin and Victor Wooten having a discussion on methods of instruction. My point here is not to publicize that event, but to reference that situation to the ongoing question of “what to study”. Both these artists in my opinion are stellar players, obviously with different approaches—that to me is a message in itself. So with that in mind, I’d wondered if you could share your take on what you personally might recommend spending time on as far as a course of study goes.

Tom: In answer to that, I don’t really see a way to attack this situation. The players that can really put things together have a certain musical sensibility to them, and there are a lot of variables there. One way to begin looking at this is the mere physicality of playing. I knew a guy in high school that had amazing facilities on the instrument, but once again I’m always looking for musical content. I can see that I could go on and on with this, but basically what I’m saying is that everybody’s right… Victor is right, Jeff is right. There’s no wrong involved here, especially when they’ve proven themselves as a musician. I really think that if anybody were going to stand up and say that this is the sole approach to becoming a better player, I wouldn’t believe them.

When you’re in school, they talk about composition, or they’ll talk about analyzing someone’s music, and you have to remember that’s one person’s idea of what the analysis should be to grow as a player. Here’s an example. If you’re teaching in a classical atmosphere, and you mention a jazz chord to someone under those circumstances, you’re fired…your done. And I remember that happened a couple of times. There were some diminished things that Bach was doing in a particular piece I was analyzing, and I presented the thought that it was based around a diminished idea, and the guy said what do you mean “diminished” idea, what are you talking about; we don’t even discuss that in classical music. And I’m thinking, that doesn’t make me wrong, so who’s going to say what’s wrong or right. It just came down to the way we both listened to things. I ultimately think, in my humble opinion, that anybody that picks up an instrument and is interested should get basic lessons in technique, just to know how to correctly hold the instrument, and how to correctly make a note with the instrument, and then I think they should live with the instrument for a while, on their own. I think that separates the people that are truly interested in the instrument from those who just think it’s a romantic notion to play an instrument.  When I got an instrument in my hands I would watch as many people as I could, on TV or whatever, then I would sit in an easy chair and play for six hours a day. I was totally engrossed in the bass. I basically established my own technique from doing that. But it was based on sound people, and the way those people would play. I was playing upright, and remember going to see players like Stanley Clarke and Ray Brown and just watched very closely to what they were doing. And then I would go home and practice that for weeks. I would analyze it, break it down, listen to recordings, and try to figure out how to play like that, because I knew if I could sound like someone, or I could get the idea of what somebody was trying to do, it would open up a totally different world for me. I also made sure to try to get information from many different perspectives. My thing was living with the instrument and trying to get to know the instrument, and I’ve always tried to instill that within my students as well. It’s not just about preparing the lesson that you’re trying to do week to week; it’s trying to find out as much as you can about that instrument, and what speaks to you. That’s where the eventual identity comes from…. that’s why people are different. That’s why Victor is Victor, that’s why George Mraz is George Mraz, that’s why Jaco was Jaco. That kind of identity to me is what it’s all about.  A lot of people try to emulate Coltrane, but Coltrane is the only Coltrane I’ve ever heard. It’s where he came from and how he put everything together. There’s a saying out there, it’s not the eggs; it’s how you scramble them.

Jake: You’ve been working with Dave (Weckl) for many years, and it’s easy for me to put the two of you into the extraordinary rhythm section category. This kind of magic between players is in my opinion a rarity. I know it’s a tough question, but what in your opinion do you think are some of the elements involved in creating a musical relationship as strong as you and Dave have developed?

Tom: I could talk about that for days. What I think really had a lot to do with it is that we’re from the same place. I think there’s a commonality that comes about because of that, kind of being from a certain part of the world, more so in the same state, and more so again in the same city. We had a lot of the same experiences growing up. I do definitely think that it’s important to try to find someone to work with or to play with that has the same rhythmic sensibility that you do. I’ve always thought that Dave and I have a very similar approach as far as looking at the whole perspective. We both like the same things. It’s amazing when we both hear something and we’ll look at each other and go, wow, that was slamming, or that’s the thing, that’s the groove. I remember listening to the hook up of Abe Laborial and Gadd, or Anthony and Gadd, and Dave and I were in total agreement about how powerful it was. That kind of musicality was just undisputed.

Dave and I basically just came from the same kind of mold. I also think that it’s a matter of respecting the person you’re playing with to the degree of wanting to basically nurture every quarter note or eighth note that you hear them play, and respond to that. Dave will do a little thing, or I will do a little thing to kind of change up the groove a little bit, and we hear each other. A lot of rhythm sections that I’ve heard playing together for years still don’t have that commodore I feel is needed between players. Conversely, I’ve heard other rhythm sections that have not been playing together for to long but have that same sensibility about them, and you can hear that in their groove…. you can immediately here that. Dave and I used to joke about it and say whoever becomes famous first, we’re going to play together, and Dave has always stuck to that. And when the Dave Weckl band came into existence, I was the guy. We still play a lot of gigs together, and the hook up is just ridiculous with us, it always feels like going home.

Jake: Return to Forever just completed what seems to be a fairly successful tour. And as well, Stanley, Marcus, and Victor are gearing up for their tour to support their CD “Thunder”. Do you feel the door is opening a little wider for this more aggressive style of contemporary Jazz, much like your project with Dave?

Tom: That’s definitely where it’s headed. I think kids are excited about this music. This is an interesting question for me personally. I come from a main stream jazz kind of sensibility, and I really believe that the thing that people grab onto are the things that people really feel… anybody that is doing the music with spirit. I’ve been in straight ahead jazz situations playing with extremely assertive and aggressive jazz players, drummers, piano players, and guitar players alike, and been in a room of college kids, or people in their early to late twenties, and had the house standing and screaming. I believe this can be done in any genre, and beyond that, I think it’s easier to present it sometimes when it’s in a more rock and roll or fusion sensibility. But I definitely think that that style is very conducive to what the future holds in music. The only thing that I still want to see, and I’m glad that there are still guys like Chick out there still doing it, is the melodic content, and using that within the harmonic context of the music. I hear so much music out there that’s more about technique then the music, and that’s a scary thing to me. And it’s the same thing that the kids are listening to as far as pop music goes these days. There’s not a lot of chord changes, or a lot of melody to it. It’s more based in rhythm, which is a wonderful thing, but I feel the European influence has to remain ultimately for it to be called music. With all due respect to that style, which I would call artistry, not music, I just hate to see melodies disappear from a lot of the music within our culture. But I have to add there are always a handful of guys that seem to keep the melody and the spirit of music intact, and I’m grateful for those players.

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