Conversation With Kai Eckhardt
For those of you who don’t know Kai Eckhardt, let me start by mentioning that he had quite a prestigious start in the business. After leaving Berklee School of Music, he immediately went out with the John McLaughlin–Trilok Gurtu trio, one of the most influential bands of its time. This musical upbringing thrust him into a career surrounded by some of the best players in the business, and has kept him an integral part of the top echelon of the bass community.
He remains deeply committed to his art and has developed a long and very impressive cross-cultural discography. Grooving with bands such as Steps Ahead and then supporting such artists as Randy Brecker and Stanley Clarke, and then working with Eastern influenced projects such as Curander and Glimpse shows the diversity this man owns within his playing.
Beyond that, he stays highly involved with a series of master classes he holds within his very busy touring schedule. His very unique approach in a master class setting should be noted, and investigated in my opinion. His thoughts on the “art” of being a musician display the same diversity and depth as the well-respected voice he has created on his instrument. This is a musician worth checking out.
Jake: First off, I’d like to go back to your earlier days with John Mclaughlin and Trilok Gurtu. My humble opinion, this was an exceptional and very unique trio. What was it like working with them?
Kai: At that time I had just graduated from the Berklee School of Music, and I received the phone call from John Mclaughlin to audition for him. It was, synchronisticaly speaking, one of those situations where everything fell into place. I was at that time in Boston at Berklee, and was getting ready to move back to Germany after graduating, and when John called I thought it was going to be a problem. But it turned out that the band was rehearsing in Germany, which was the first big coincidence. Trilok Gurtu at the time lived in Hamburg, and so me moving back to Germany actually helped pull together the trio.
I did make the audition, and ended up having to learn music that I had never encountered before, such as long form compositions with odd meters. So we spent about a week rehearsing the music, and then I had time to prepare on my own.
Our first gig was in Italy in1989. That was kind of scary for me because I felt I was behind and not on the level that John and Trilok were. When these musicians play live they play with a lot more intensity and the forms were a lot more obscure then we had rehearsed. Long story short, I had a speed learning curve to deal with. It turned out to be a very successful time for John, and it kind of put him back on the map. This record, Live at the Royal Festival Hall, became a huge seller. That helped the trio, and helped me as an individual. Overall I feel it was as much as a school working with the trio as going to Berklee was.
Jake: So do you feel this trio was somewhat instrumental in helping you find I’ll say the recognizable voice you’ve developed on your instrument?
Kai: It certainly contributed to that, because John’s philosophy was to hire players that he liked and then encourage them to outgrow their limitations. Lots of other bandleaders are concerned with keeping their musicians down, and not outshining whomever the leader might be. But John is very supportive, and humble towards the music, and so he was in a way responsible for me working out my techniques, and coming up with concepts and solos, and learning how to play chords on the bass…. he kind of demanded that. And so by him demanding this high level performance, I ended up learning things on the instrument that I wouldn’t have otherwise if I would have stayed in the world of pop, and rock, and R&B music.
Jake: In some of my other interviews, the artists talked about being careful backing up whoever that leader might be, like you referred to, so I understand the point that you’re making about working with John. You’ve worked with a lot of other great artists over the years as well, Steps Ahead, Al DiMeola, Billy Cobham, and Patrice Rushen to name a few. What do you feel you personally bring to the table musically to open up the opportunity to work with these great musicians?
Kai: Besides the fact that I just love music in general, I put people first before the music. For me, music is there to help people in their condition, not the other way around. Music in itself is a force that everyone needs to get with. Music is there to help people get through their lives. It’s also a great way to help people vent their emotions in a creative constructive way rather than taking it out on society. It’s a pressure valve in a way too. So what I feel I bring to the table is I always play in such a way as to have everyone around bring out the best they have to offer. And, I’m non competitive. Instead of being competitive, I feel I’m complimentary towards musicians, rather than trying to out-do them.
I realize that chops can be a trap the same way being a certain type of groove player can be a trap. So I avoid that by trying to have all my tools ready. In other words, I show up prepared for the gig. I try to get the music ahead of time. Sometimes I’ll make my own charts. Most of the time when you work with a band you’ll have the music to listen to on a CD with no charts, or only the chart and no music. Sometimes you’ll have the charts with the wrong type of music with it. So what I do is sort all of that stuff out ahead of time so I can come to the gig relaxed, and that’s the most important thing.
It’s a combination of being focused and being relaxed. Being focused and relaxed on the job always makes a difference no matter what the context is. One never knows what is going on in a person’s life. I might be hired for a band, and the bandleader may be going through a divorce, or a health issue, or something like that. You know, life is life. Things are always happening, and I can pick up on that stress, and can see how that stress can translate into their performance, and I try to minimize that, and say hey, the stage is an environment, and it’s a safe environment. So as long as we have a love for the music and stay within the form and the compositions, we can just fully express the way we feel. That is the best possible outcome for the gig. And you’d be surprised at how challenging that can be to keep that philosophy up because many times there are major obstacles.
Jake: To coin and old phrase, the only constant is change.
Kai: That’s exactly right.
Jake: I know you’ve been involved in doing some master classes for Berklee School of Music and the Bass Collective in New York. What would you say is the focus of your presentation at these events?
Kai: The focus of my presentation is mostly that we’re living in a multi-cultural world, and is increasingly becoming more so. And we need to find new tools to try to be able to integrate our ideas together. If you have someone coming from a Latin background, the clave and their time feel is vastly different from someone coming from a different musical tradition. This is just one of many examples of how this world is for better or worse starting to mingle and mix.
So my approach to teaching starts with trying to map out the entire universe first in kind of a rudimentary way. As an example, we can divide this up into the zodiac and the twelve signs. Along with that, let’s say that we are looking also at the twelve “notes” in the chromatic universe. And then I will line up those notes with the physical clock. Let’s say letter “C” would be 12:00, C#-Db would be 1:00, D would be 2:00, and then going all the way around to B natural at 11:00. Then I will show musicians every scale that we’re used to is just a combination of intervals, and that the intervals are the actual building blocks.
So I’m teaching musicians to understand symmetry. A symmetrical structure would be the chromatic scale–it’s all half steps. The whole tone scale is all whole tones. The minor thirds make up the diminished theory. Major thirds make up the augmented theory, and so on and so forth. So I teach the students to learn all the pure forms separately, and then to bring them together. That way the student can actually realize that there is so much music that hasn’t been done yet, but they can do by understanding how to put things together proportionately.
Some of the most beautiful compositions are the most interesting structures and forms. And you’ll also find that they mimic things that happen in nature, such as the way leaves are growing on a tree. You can see a definite pattern. You can see that this tree does it with five leaves on every branch, and yet every leaf is slightly different, but you can see that there is a central theme going on. So I try to teach the students in a melodic and harmonic way to go back to the primal soup and do their own fishing. I could also draw a parallel to a video game called Spore. It starts in the cells stage and the creature evolves from there. I also see this in terms of social issues.
Music has a lot to do with society. You have everything from people that are pure music lovers to people for whom music is a vehicle to make a political statement. So rather than saying to the student, “This is how you do it,” I just show them the elements and say, this is how you can put them together to create your statement. You have to come up with the intention, and you have to have the tools before you can make real music. And a lot of times you’d be surprised at how many kids don’t know the basics. They read the books and learn all the fancy licks, and still don’t have any idea about the basics—and that’s what I try to teach them.
Jake: Ironically, in my Notes from the Editor column for this issue I spoke about my opinions on quote unquote what to consider studying, and to make a long story very short I more or less commented on the fact that there “is” no one particular course follow on this subject, just as you’ve been indicating yourself.
Kai: That’s right. There is confusion out there for students on this subject, and I try to help students get through that. A lot of kids feel that primarily they have to live up to the expectations of a world that wants them to know everything—you’ve got to know your jazz, you’ve got to know your rock, you’ve got to know your funk, and that is not the right way to teach. We have limited time only in this world, so we have to concentrate on bringing things to a point, so that whatever we create as musicians is actually a reflection of how we feel.
Jake: Couldn’t agree more. Final question here… I’ve personally enjoyed your work with Garaj Mahal. How did this band come about, and what’s happening with it as of late?
Kai: The band was founded in 2000, and our first show was in San Francisco. At that point we had no name for the band and we requested that our fans send in potential names over the Internet, and we ended up with something like 800 names. So we all picked our favorite name and basically boiled it down to Garaj Mahal. After that we started touring up and down the West Coast. Slowly, we expanded our market across the Midwest and all the way to Canada and down the east coast. So at this point we’ve created a solid following, kind of a grass roots following because we’re not a major band, and we’re now averaging about 100 gigs per year. It’s going very well and we have a very solid fan base.
Our touring is very structured at this point. We usually fly into the first gig, get into the vehicles, do the tour, and fly out from the last city we play in. We have a great booking agent and a fantastic record label, and that makes a difference. We have a new record that’s coming out in a couple of weeks and we’ve already had six or seven reviews that went through the roof. All of us in the band are equal songwriting partners and whoever is the songwriter of a particular composition becomes the producer for that particular song; All decisions are made by him for that particular piece. So basically all four members of the band alternate between being sidemen or leader. It turns out to be very functional working that way, and it helped us sort out conflicts that we had in the past as far as how a particular song should be interpreted. This has been a very successful path for the band to pursue and has worked well for us, and we look forward to more touring.
Visit online at www.kaizone.com