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Kevin Frenette: Fall River Guitar Guy

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However cool the surface of his music, Kevin Frenette is not content to serve up any sort of "easy listening." The guitarist grew up in Fall River, a small city in southeastern Massachusetts, but the beauty of his music is akin to a sylvan setting—to enter into it is to traverse a forest trail. Some themes and motifs—"organisms"—are finely formed and highly developed; some are just budding—new ideas still in the rough, offered to the ear as tokens of innovations transpiring or to come. There are frenzies of activity, coolly psychedelic, and then dry turns—demanding terrain that challenges, but in the final analysis leads to greater triumphs and more difficult pleasures. There is always in it a knot to unravel, or to tie, for those choosing to take his path.

In a similar way, Frenette and his band members spool together their lines and splice them, and pull them apart again. To listen carefully to the music is also to be drawn into these plays of interlocking and combination—and ultimately to feel a part of nature, sometimes cool, sometimes dry, sometimes wild and wet.

All About Jazz: Tell us about the cover band you were in before you played jazz.

Kevin Frenette: That was something I was in for about ten years. I haven't been in it for about the past seven.

AAJ: So you must have been quite young when you started in it. Was it high school?

KF: It was in college—UMass Dartmouth. One of the guys I was in high school with, he was also at UMass Dartmouth and he was in the band first, before me, and when their guitarist left I replaced him. And for better or for worse, I was in there for ten years. But it was a good ride, and we made a lot of money during that time. We did a lot of gigging, something that was regular—four nights a week during the summer—and I was still working a full time job during the day, too.

AAJ: How did you go about deciding the music you played? Was it stuff you liked, or was it stuff the audience liked?

KF: It was all the audience. It was whatever was on pop radio. One of the guys in the group would give us a CD on Saturday night, and say, "Next Wednesday, have all these songs ready to go." So you had the pressure of having to learn five or six songs, without the benefit of any rehearsal together with the band, and then Wednesday night you had to be ready to play them all. But it was just whatever bubblegum stuff was on the radio at the time.

AAJ: Was this the '80s?

KF: No, this was late '90s, into the early 2000s—

AAJ: Maybe Barenaked Ladies, Britney Spears—

KF: A lot of Barenaked Ladies, a lot of Prince, U2—all the stuff that was popular and on the radio.

AAJ: What drew you to the style of what you do now? It's difficult; it's cool on the surface, but not easy listening. Why do that when you could be making more money doing rock or straight-ahead jazz?

KF: There's something about being in the moment, with other players who are listening so intently and trying to make this spontaneous thing happen. To compare it to being in a cover band—you're there to play the tunes the way they are on the radio, that's what people expect—while you're still feeding off the other guys, and there might be flashes of, you know, playing off each other, there's nothing like being in an avant-jazz band. I can speak to myself and I can also tell it's happening with the other guys, but I'm trying so hard just to dovetail with them and just make music happen—make something that's really going to push forward. To me, there's so much to play in that kind of music.

When I went to college, I wanted to learn to play the guitar the best I could. And this music—it's the place. It's all about playing. And that's why I'm so interested in this.

AAJ: When did you start listening to jazz, and when did you start playing the type of jazz you do now? What teachers and friends were involved?

KF: I'll say '94. It was right when I started going to college for music. Originally I had gone for accounting, and then I begged my parents to jump over. And I had a bunch of friends; we were all in the same track, and we started all together getting into jazz around the same time. And what we would do—we would buy The Penguin Guide to Jazz, and we would all have a copy of that giant book—you know, like The Bible—we would read that thing and—I'm forgetting what their highest rating is. I think it's the crown. So we would look through everything that had the crown and try to investigate that.

But it had a more logical track to it than that, where you'd always hear Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
, Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
, Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus
1922 - 1979
bass, acoustic
, so logically we'd flip the book to Charlie Parker, Miles, Mingus, and buy those records that were highly rated. And that eventually snowballed, until now you've got most of the Miles catalogue—or at least I did. Then you started moving into John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
, getting all of that, and reading The Penguin Guide you would see the people who were related to that, and then you went to [Eric] Dolphy = 6340}}—

From left: Andy McWain, Todd Keating Tatsuya Nakatani, Kevin Frenette

AAJ: The family tree.

KF: Right. And the next person was Eric Dolphy. Through that it started moving out towards Anthony Braxton
Anthony Braxton
Anthony Braxton
b.1945
reeds
, things like that. Once we finally were really absorbing the Dolphy stuff, loving that, I remember one of my friends saying, "We're gonna go up to Boston to Tower Records," and I gave him 40 dollars, and I told him to get—It was one of those Anthony Braxton quartets on Leo, from the '80s, whatever one was highest-rated. He came back and we listened to it, and I said, "Wow! I don't like that at all!" I just couldn't connect with it, just couldn't grab it. And we put it aside and kept it there.

It might have been the next semester where we finally started moving into 20th Century composition and more modern composers. We were starting to study the Schoenberg piano pieces. And we were pulling the pieces apart, analyzing them in class. And the same thing—when that first day came and he handed us those discs and said go home and listen to this: "Wow! I don't like this." It was just all over the place and I didn't like it.

Weeks started going by, and we started analytically pulling all that stuff apart, and we started to understand the building blocks of what it was. It clicked. All of a sudden, I could hear this language that I had never heard of before, that was so colorful, compared to the traditional, harmonic material we had been studying throughout the classical period while we were in school. All of a sudden, it was like all these new sounds and new combinations of notes were there that it just snapped. It was instantly attractive to me.

And then when I went back to the Braxton, I was, like, "There it is." And then, I don't know. I must have paid Braxton's rent over many times because I have an immense collection of his stuff. I've studied all the composition notes and everything. He really is everything to me as far as listening to this stuff. He's just amazing.

AAJ: Some people might feel the same way, listening to your music. Now Joe Maneri
Joe Maneri
Joe Maneri
1927 - 2009
saxophone
and Joe Morris
Joe Morris
Joe Morris
b.1955
guitar
are two artists largely given credit for forging what's come to be known as the "Boston sound." Have you studied with either of them?

KF: I've never studied one-on-one with either of them, but I've studied watching them play, so many times. I used to come up, when I was in college, to Boston to see them play all the time. I used to love them. I never heard a group that could breathe like [Maneris]. The thing I liked most about the music was how excruciatingly slow some of it was. You could feel the entire room surge.

That was such an unbelievable template for me—to be able to see those guys, take that microtonal language and overlay that on something that was really, to my ears, jazz- based. Just the way that that group responded to each other—I remember seeing them, and bringing people with me and playing the CDs on the way up. They weren't into it, but getting them there, once they saw that group live, you could feel it happen. They just had something that was really influential to me. Not so much—if you were to look at my record Connections (Fuller Street, 2006) you wouldn't see that—but some of the things that I'm doing now, with the trio group, it really, really influences the direction.

AAJ: Microtonal?

KF: Not so much microtonal but, like, just the overall feel of the groups. Because the Maneris had an understated pulse. And I think what we're playing now with the current trio—we're really playing with those tools that I got from the Maneris.

Joe Morris—he was another person that I used to go to see pretty religiously. He's definitely my favorite guitarist. The thing that I like most about his music is that every project sounds different. It seems like he designs materials for each project to create unique areas for him to work in and I really enjoy hearing him working that stuff out.

AAJ: Now you have your Kevin Frenette 3, and your Kevin Frenette 4—who else do you play with?

KF: Actually, I'm in a few things right now: Forbes Graham
Forbes Graham
Forbes Graham

trumpet
's Wild May, with [bassist] Ryan McGuire
Ryan McGuire
Ryan McGuire
b.1979
bass
and [drummer] Luther Gray
Luther Gray
Luther Gray

drums
. That's a fantastic group, and Forbes writes some really interesting charts for that group. And what I like about what he writes is that if you were to look at the four of us, without knowing we come in with pre-read material, you could almost figure out what we might sound like. And what Forbes brings, as far as charts, totally smashes that. Because we can't do what everybody else is known for playing. Forbes brings in graphic scores—

From left: Kevin Frenette, Adam Dotson, Forbes Graham, Andy McWain

AAJ: Literally graphic scores, with no notes?

KF: Correct. It could be shapes, or sometimes it's word fragments. Sometimes I may look down and see a circle and I'll think, "How does Luther play that?" And I think that's what's great about that group: "How do you play that circle on the drums—on the guitar?"

AAJ: Is there any right answer, or any semblance of one?

KF: No, I don't think so, because Forbes really leaves it open to interpretation. But I think it's one of those things where, once it hits, everybody starts to hear what everyone else is doing and it starts to become this composite thing that you can hear what the circles mean. The outcome is always different, too. Everyone's got a different way of playing that circle. But at some point, there becomes this collective identity on what those shapes start to mean, and so far it's been really successful. I really like that group.

Another thing that I've been doing for the past few months is The Citizens Orchestra, which Eric Zinman put together. And that's been a lot of the Boston crew: Jim Hobbs
Jim Hobbs
Jim Hobbs

sax, alto
, and Forbes, Jacob Williams. It's interesting, in a large group like that, to know how to blend, how to let your ideas come forward but also play in the back. And it's been a real thrill because a lot of those people—they're my idols in that group.

I've done a few things in the past year with Jack Wright
Jack Wright

saxophone
, in a quartet with Kit Demos
Kit Demos
Kit Demos

bass, acoustic
on bass, John McLellan
John McLellan
John McLellan
b.1968
drums
on drums, and that's been really, really great. Jack hasn't—or at least when he's been in this group, he tends to play less of a "lower-case" thing, and more of a free jazz thing—

AAJ: Energy?

KF: Yeah. It's great to hear him play inside of that, because when I used to go see him, he'd play really quiet things, in the lower-case style, and to hear him do this, it's wild. It's been sitting in the background. To hear him roar, it's amazing, and that's another chance for me to learn, because he's a fabulous musician.

AAJ: It seems like you're always ahead of the curve and you're always seeking to assimilate new phenomena, new styles, and new ways of putting your music together, to the point where some of it's like a diamond in the rough. But that's another part of the beauty—some of it, you've worked on for a while and it's very finely honed, and some of it you're still working on.

It's like walking through a forest and seeing elements of nature in different parts of growth: trees just budding, and then trees fully formed. You've got that great range. You're always searching for a new sound.

KF: I definitely agree with that. The whole point for me is just to keep evolving. Especially now, with the current trio stuff I've been doing with James Rohr on keyboards and John McLellan on drums. That trio just happened to come together out of—we had a gig booked and we couldn't book a bassist for it. ... It was a conscious decision to do something not in line with Connections. The trio is a much more subtle music, almost to the point where I look at the Connectionsrecord as—we're playing on the horizontal plane, where there's a lot of forward motion. There's a lot of connecting melodically in there.

I think, with the trio, we're dealing more with the vertical, where we're playing more harmonically. It's almost like stop-motion, like the tempo is totally in flux, where James and I might overlay on each other—he may play this really extended harmony, and I would overlay something on top that's related to it, and together we create this strange polytonality, and we really explore that for a long time. We might hover for a while. And instead of it being intensity and always forward motion to the piece—

AAJ: Static?

KF: I think we're just trying to come up with a different way. What I wanted was just something that's totally not what's going on in town right now—to have a group that doesn't sound like anything else. And I think we're working on something with that. Those guys in that group are perfect. The best part of it for me is those guys were my idols. I used to go see James all the time. I wouldn't talk to him. I just thought he was so great, I had nothing to say!

Same thing with John. I saw John countless times playing fantastic gigs, and thought his approach to drums was unbelievable. And to be able to play with them now, after almost learning how to play by listening—not just watching but listening to the CDs—it's amazing for me. It makes me better. From the first time we hit together, it was already there. Just 'cause I knew how they were going to play. And it's been perfect. James is a fantastic guy, and he's so positive. He wants to go out there and make something beautiful, and the same thing with John. And that's what we're doing now.

From left: Andy McWain, John McLellan, Kevin Frenette

The thing with John is, he plays like no other drummer. He drops the bottom out. The pulse is there and it's so strong, but it's just implied. He's decorating. He's like a painter, I think. He's just decorating around the beat, and you almost feel the beat from watching him—

AAJ: Like negative space?

KF: Exactly. And that is huge to me. I find that I'm reacting so much to what he's not playing. And that's what pushes this band forward—is the fact that everyone's holding back.

AAJ: Almost like trust falls.

KF: I totally agree. Everybody's just pulling back and being really self-aware of making something beautiful. I know James is always thinking "beautiful support" in what he's playing. And I'm just trying to play beautiful melodies over what he is, or the best melodies that I could possibly play—and it couldn't be easier with John there. Everything he plays is perfect.

AAJ: Is this all improvised, or do you have any notation?

KF: All improvised.

AAJ: Because it is reminiscent of Bill Dixon
Bill Dixon
Bill Dixon
1925 - 2010
trumpet
. In his Tapestries for Small Orchestra (Firehouse 12, 2009), he uses notation in a special way. It's part of a whole system that involves intensive studio preparation and improvisation as well. Bill Dixon is unique, so you can never sum up what he's doing in a technical synopsis—it's never as simple as pure notation or improvisation. And no one agrees on what he's doing, technically speaking.

The same can be said for you. You can't reduce what you do to music theory, you're doing so many different things. It's complex on one level and simple on another.

KF: Yeah. I think it's pulling from everything we know, at all times. Everyone's feeding off of that.

Selected Discography

Kevin Frenette Quartet, Live at the 119 Gallery (Abrasive Chair, 2010)

Kevin Frenette Trio, Fragile Moments (Abrasive Chair, 2010)

Kevin Frenette 4, Connections (Fuller Street, 2006)

Photo Credits

Pages 1-3: Lisa Frenette

Page 4: Matt Samolis

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