Tom Kennedy: Just For The Record
by Rick Suchow
(originally published in the March 2012 issue of Bass Musician Magazine)
It would be hard to overstate Tom Kennedy’s mastery of jazz bass, and surely anyone who has played with him– a list of luminaries that includes James Moody, Freddie Hubbard, Dizzy Gillespie, Michael Brecker and dozens more– can attest to that fact. The St. Louis native, who picked up a double bass at just nine years old, earned an early reputation as a local upright phenom and soon found his career, no pun intended, in full swing. Adding the electric to his low-end arsenal a few years later, Kennedy has been a first-call bassist now for three decades, with a resume that runs as deep as his groove and feel. He’s also been a leader on three well-respected solo albums, including the recently released Just For The Record.
For all the greats that he has worked with, one name seems to jump to the forefront of Tom’s musical journey more than others: drummer Dave Weckl. Their friendship formed in their Missouri teens and later headed east, where both saw their careers shine in the bright lights of New York’s mid-eighties jazz and fusion scene. The two have worked well– and quite often– together over the years, and so in writing an intro for this interview I thought I’d ask Dave for his uniquely inside opinion on what makes Kennedy the great bassist that he is.
“Tom has a broad, deep knowledge of various music,” Weckl explained. “This gives him the ability to adapt to different styles and different drummers quickly. His time is ridiculously good, ‘drummer-kind’ of time— ‘cause he plays a bit of drums! And he knows how to evoke the subtleties of emotion through the bass with his understanding of note lengths, both short and long, and when and where to play them. Plus, he understands song form and the function of the bass within it.”
Kennedy’s newest album—his first in a decade– is a bass tour de force, and one that deserves a spot in anyone’s jazz collection. Whether wielding his warm-sounding upright or his uniquely-voiced signature Fodera 5-string electric (and even an old short scale fretless on one tune), Just For The Record is a joy to listen to. From the wickedly paced drum-bass duet “Breakneck” to the squiggly swing-funk of “Pumpkinette”, and a brilliant reworking of the great standard “Alone Together”, Tom has turned out one of the more outstanding bass-centric albums in recent memory. His phenomenal soloing technique is also featured on a full seven of the album’s nine cuts. The recording certainly seemed like a good place to start my interview, as I went searching low and low for some bass insight from Mr. TK… just for the record, of course.
Did you have an overall vision for the new album, as compared to how you approached your first two solo albums?
You know, they all kind of relate in the sense that they’re just based on music that I like. I wasn’t worried as much about composing for these records, at least for Bases Loaded and this record, as much as wanting to just play stuff that I really like and melodies that I think are good. Actually there are a few songs on there, like “Mountain Flight” and a couple of others, that I have not played and wanted to because I enjoyed them so much and heard arrangements that I wanted to do.
You take some great solos on the album. When you go to take a solo, do you generally have some kind of road map in your head as to what you want to say , or do you tend to let the solo evolve on its own?
Well, that’s a great question. For me, it’s always been constructing the solo as I go, although the first few notes of the solo can really determine where that’s gonna go. Maybe a melody idea or some kind of a harmonic idea that I play will lead to the next idea, but whether I follow the motif or not, you know, that’s when it gets a little difficult to try and explain. (laughs) Sometimes I’ll do a complete departure from what I started with and go into something else midway, or maybe I’ll take something and kind of turn it over and do it the other way melodically. I guess what I’m trying to say is that my solos always do follow a thought, I follow one phrase with another phrase that I think fits with it, and I usually try to stay with some kind of a melodic thing. Eventually the solo will build up velocity-wise.
Speaking of velocity, the opening tune “Breakneck” features some lightning fast bass chops. Was that an impromptu thing between you and Dave Weckl?
You know, it’s funny. The truth of the matter is I just heard the idea of doing something like that, and it kind of fell together as I was doing it. There were some things that I wanted to do in it, like some little finger-picking things, and then there are a couple of spots where I kind of take a break and Dave takes over. The last thing I do, I guess about 32 bars, I’m playing through rhythm changes.
Right, I was going to ask you if you were playing through a chart on part of the tune.
A long time ago I remember hearing a bootleg Steps Ahead recording of Michael Brecker playing a duet with Peter Erskine, and I remember Brecker broke into rhythm changes. I’ll never forget that because it just brought the whole thing together harmonically at the very end. It was kind of like, okay, here are the changes you’ve been waiting for, here’s the form you’ve been waiting for, and now we’re gonna take it out. I really got a kick out of that. So a lot of times when I’m doing that kind of thing, I follow his lead.
Speaking of Weckl, who is a big collaborator on this album, you guys have a long history together both musically and personally. How would you say the two of you have evolved as players over the years?
Well it’s been such a natural evolution. We’ve played together a lot through the years, but there have been months that have gone by where we haven’t seen each other, and for me that’s kind of when I see the growth most of all. I think the first time we met we were 14 or 15 years old, and we’ve known each other and played with each other ever since. As far as Dave’s thing, it’s just his knowledge of different styles and his fluency of playing them, as well as his technical fluency. He’s always been a really mature player, even when he was a little kid. He always had a really good solid foundation, a good feel, and played what was necessary in the music with a really good sensibility. I think that’s a big reason why we got along so well from the beginning, because we both kind of heard music similarly and had a similar sense of what our role was as players. So on both sides we’ve both developed so much technically, but also there’s always been that strong sense of what our function is. A lot of people ask me, ‘how do you play with somebody that great’, and for me it’s that much easier to play with someone when I don’t have to think, when I know it’s gonna be there, when I don’t worry about anything. I can just play, you know. I can just do what I do, and I know that he understands what I do, and I understand what he does, and we’re gonna come out at the end.
Your song “Since Then” on the new album is a gorgeous ballad. You’re playing a fretless on it, but I don’t see the bass in the equipment list in your album notes. What fretless is that?
Oh, that’s an old Italian bass I got when I was nine years old, and it’s really interesting, it’s like balsa wood. This thing weighs nothing! It’s a very light little short scale fretless bass that my father actually got in the music store–we had a music store for about 35 years– and this bass came into the store from somebody who was selling it. I think my father paid 25 dollars for it, I don’t know if the thing was stolen or what. (laughs)
And it still holds up.
Oh my god, it really is amazing. I mean, I’ve showed it to a lot of makers, a lot of bass players, and everybody is just blown away by it. And it’s funny because I just take it out of the closet every now and then.
Well it sounds great on that tune.
Oh, it’s beautiful. Yeah, it’s just a big, round, very fat sound, and it’s amazing how it sustains. The thing I love about it is that it reminds me of playing upright because it has such great sustain, you feel every note and you feel the sustain through the body of the instrument. It feels acoustic. It’s really a cool little bass and I think it worked out well.
Obviously your main electric is your Fodera TK signature bass. What was the process you went through with Vinnie Fodera as far as developing that bass, and what were the specific things you were looking for him to do with it?
Well, I started with him really early. It was the beginning of 1985 when we started working together, and I remember playing their first 5-string, which I played for years. They were doing 6-strings before they did 5-strings, and so I actually had the first 5-string they ever built, which was just an amazing instrument. So from the beginning– again, it was kind of the same thing I was saying about Dave– there was just a relationship from the very start. The instrument spoke, it had a wonderful midrange, a wonderful range of colors, and it really felt like the instrument I was meant to play. And this was a piece they made before they ever knew me, so I knew I was on the right track with that. I used the stock things that they used, like the preamp in my bass is a standard Pope preamp. Basically the thing I did to change things up a bit was where I put the pickups, and we talked about the type of pickups we wanted to use, that kind of thing.
Did you consider a single pickup design?
I never did because I wanted more of a variety of things, and also if you talk about putting a single pickup on the instrument I would never be able to figure out where I’d want it to be– even though I loved the sound that Anthony Jackson and Lincoln Goines had (with a single pickup). What I did always love, from when I was a teen, is the Music Man StingRay sound. The difference is most people take all of the midrange out of the StingRay, and my idea was to add the midrange back in and have a kind of mid-Music Man sound. I used to try that with the Music Man bass but they were scooped so much that you could never really get it the way you wanted it, and so that was one of the things that I wanted to experiment with on my signature bass, to try and come up with a pickup configuration but also be functional in other ways. And so we came up with an idea that the pickups were more toward the bridge, and that kind of did it for me. I can still have the back pickup sound, it’s a humbucker and so it’s much fatter, and then I can dial in the two coils for the Music Man sound, which actually ended up being the middle two of the four coils. The outer coils are almost like a Jazz Bass kind of sound.
Back to your thoughts on soloing. What are the three most important things every bassist should work on to improve their soloing?
I think melody is the most important thing. Start in a good place with your melody, maybe taking a nice easy, kind of simple melodic idea. It’s really important that your solo fits into the music you’re playing, it has to make sense. So maybe playing something dynamically that enhances the melody, you know, almost like a counter-melody. That’s something that I’ve always admired about Mike Stern; within a beautiful song that he’s written he’ll play a solo which is just as beautifully melodic as the song itself. So that’s been a big thing for me.
Along with the melody idea, I think giving it space, giving it some breathing room when it’s the right time. Especially in the beginning of the solo, letting it kind of breath as you would speak. Later on, if it’s an uptempo thing, you can kind of go nuts and all that. And I think a lot of players don’t think about rhythm, but rhythm is very important in a solo. I’ve heard a lot of guys kind of forget that they’re rhythm players when they play solo, but where you place the notes really makes a big difference, you know, just as it does in a melody. (Hums the first two bars of “Alfie”.) If you play that out of time, you miss half of the idea of what that melody is. So I think those three things are really important. That’s always something I’ve kind of stood by and I’ve always tried to do.
Who are the bass players that most influenced you when you were coming up?
I started as an upright player so Ray Brown was huge, for the very reason I’m talking about. The way he used to construct his bass lines was just amazing, I mean they were like solos. I used to listen to him with Oscar Peterson a lot. And Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen was just amazing. He inspired me from the technical thing, because Ray, as far as I was concerned, had the market on time and feel and that big bass sound. Niels was the inspiration for a lot of the technique I use these days, even on electric. I still play electric kind of like an upright player. So Niels was big.
And I have to mention Stanley Clarke, because when I heard Light As A Feather I was blown away. His bass was just so fluent, so relaxed, and I thought, you know, it’s possible to make an upright bass sound like something that’s not labored. It was like he took something that’s impossible to play and made it sound like he was playing a flute. That had a real effect on me, it just seemed to flow off of his hands. That was my first real introduction to limitless technique, and smoothness and fluidity.
On the reverse side, the strong quarter note of Gene Perla with Elvin Jones was an influence. I heard him early, on Live At The Lighthouse, the Elvin record with Dave Liebman and Steve Grossman. And I tell you what, when I heard him on that record, that changed my life because of his time. And it was different, his time was different from Ray’s, it was more in Elvin’s quarter note– which opens up another can of worms, when you talk about time and where you’re putting the time on the beat, and that kind of thing.
You picked up the electric bass when you were in your teens. Who were your influences on electric?
Larry Graham was big in the beginning. Believe it or not, I had never even thought about playing electric bass. A guy walked into my father’s store one day and said, ‘can I see that bass over there on the wall’, and he started playing funk on it. He started playing these little Larry Graham licks and all that, and I was just blown away. It was cool because he played it very well and had a good feel, there was a pocket that I’d never felt before. I said to him, ‘man how do you learn how to do that?’ and he said, ‘listen to Larry Graham.’ And then he walked out of the shop. (laughs) So I went and got every Larry Graham record I could find.
And you got into the whole slap bass thing.
Oh yeah! I hardly do it all anymore, but boy I was really, really into it for a very long time.
Paul Jackson was another early influence on electric, and that’s the reason I bought a P-Bass. It’s funny, with a lot of these guys I used to emulate them, you know, I tried to pretend to be them. I remember when I was really into Ray Brown, seeing an album cover where he was smoking a pipe and playing his bass, and I talked my Dad into borrowing one of his pipes so I could just see how it felt, you know? (laughs) I wasn’t smoking it, but I just wanted to see what that was, I wanted to see why Ray did that. And so anything I saw on the records I thought, well, there’s something to that, there’s some reason why they’re doing that. I gotta try that, kind of get into their head a little bit. So Paul Jackson was huge, and I just loved the way he played with Herbie.
And then I heard Anthony Jackson, I remember Dave turned me on to him with a record by Steve Khan called Casa Loco. That was the first time I heard Anthony, like 1984 or ‘85, and he also just blew me away. All of these guys had such influence in such different ways, it was really very diversified information. The common thread they all have is great time, great technique, great sound. But they all did it completely different. And there are other guys too, I really liked Ralphe Armstrong with Jean-Luc Ponty. Oddly enough, Jaco was the one I heard the least of, which is really funny because a lot of people would talk about the fact that I play in sort of a similar style as him. I love Jaco as everyone does of course, but he probably had the least effect on me of the all the people I’ve mentioned.
Let me ask you another gear question. You’re a Markbass endorser and use them live. When you’re playing live, do you look for the amp to naturally project the sound of your bass transparently, or does the amp become some component of your live sound?
You know, I think it’s both. I kind of think they end up being the same thing, because I don’t see being able to use one without the other. I guess the proof of that is in the amplification I used before Markbass with my Fodera basses. I used to try various things for years, and although I always loved the instruments and knew the sound they could produce, I don’t think I ever really got it until I played through the Markbass. The Fodera and Markbass stuff both have this wonderful organic midrange. I think a lot of amps have good lows and good highs, but it’s the middle stuff for me where your expression is, and kind of what I want to feel when I’m playing. I want to feel the mids, that’s what I work from, that’s the sound that inspires me. It’s what’s in the middle of the sound. And I remember plugging into a Markbass just by accident a few years ago, and I contacted the company the next day. It wasn’t something I’d planned, and I don’t know that they were particularly attracted to me. In fact, I’d never heard of them, I had no idea what they were. But just from one gig with Mike Stern, playing through this Markbass stuff, I felt like I’d found my sound.
What recording projects are you working on now or have coming up?
Well, this record (Just For the Record) just came out, but I’m already starting to work on another solo album. I’d like to put one out every couple of years, they’ve been kind of spaced out. (laughs) I just get busy with everybody else’s stuff, you know? I’m going to be on Mike Stern’s new record, in fact we’re recording a couple of tracks next week. I also do recordings for a lot of people by mail, so I’ve got tracks coming in and going out all the time, you know, for name people, not-so-name people, all over the world. It’s fun because it’s very diversified, it makes things really interesting.
And you have the Vegas gig with Ben Vereen coming up I believe.
I think he has something coming up in Vegas, and a bunch of dates in Hawaii and some other things. I’ve worked with him quite a bit over the last four years, and he’s just an incredible performer. I tell you, when they talk about the last of ‘em. He has all of the charisma and all of the talent, he’s like one of those complete packages that you just don’t see anymore. Not to mention his dancing, and what he can do just as an entertainer, but the incredible thing is his voice, his instrument, is just amazing. I guess Ben’s sixty-five now, and he’s so exuberant, he’s still going amazingly strong. His gig is strictly upright, and a lot of it is Frank and Sammy and some Broadway things, but it’s all really good music. That makes it a joy for me, you know? I love the fact that I get to work with different people like that, it just makes it fun. I love what I do.