Kendrick Scott: Conviction of a Jazz Oracle
Kendrick Scott Oracle presents Conviction (Concord, 2013) as a fully formed and solidified band, rather than just as a studio project combining the sounds of different musicians struggling to find a voice. Joe Sanders on bass, Taylor Eigsti on piano and Fender Rhodes, Mike Moreno on guitar, John Ellis on tenor saxophone and bass clarinet, and Alan Hampton on vocals and guitar all complement the drummer's work. This is a unity undertaking, a single heart beating as one, an ensemble of likeminded artists who know each other very well, and follow the leader's dream of creating a dialogue between the listener and the music.
This album pays tribute to the word of God with gentleness and determination. Very much in the tradition of jazz greats like Julian "Cannonball" Adderley's mystic gospel inspiration, Scott matures as a drummer, as a man and as a human being right before our eyes, laying out a personal pattern of truth so many seek for nowadays, and some never find.
All About Jazz: Why Conviction? Why did you feel the need to make a statement at this particular moment in your life about conviction?
Kendrick Scott: I think I deal with a lifelong challenge that I think has been posed to me, but I decided to deal with it on this record, and what it is is simply the question of who you are versus who you want to be. And I think we all have visions of what we want, and we all set goals, but my thing is who would have known that I was going to be in this moment in time standing here talking to you, 10 years ago? I wouldn't have known that. Maybe I would have dreamed of being somebody else. I was dreaming of being the hottest drummer alive, with the best chops and all of that stuff. And, for me, I feel like God put me in a place and said, "Sit down, fool; that's not what I got in mind," do you know what I mean? That's who you want to be, but who you are is this person.
And the blessing that I have had in my career of being able to play with people and travel and do what I do, doing what I love for a livingI am starting to realize that actually my place in the world is one that only I can have. It's a singular thing, and it is for that thing in me to recognize who I am versus that other thing in me that wants something else from other people, and I don't think that's ever going to go away. I don't think it really ever does. There is more than one reason why I named the record Conviction, but especially I can use it as a constant reminder to add years to that. Every record that someone brings me up to sign or every time somebody talks about the record or I might hear the music or we play the music on stage, it's reminding me of that struggle and about that sound, so I am faced with it, and hopefully I will rise above it every time.
AAJ: Like the pastor said, you are who God says you are and not who other people say you are.
KS: I finally believe that. It is one of those things that it has touched me so much. Another way that it came about is that I was starting to work on the record, and my brother and great friend Derrick Hodge and Ithe producer of the recordstarted talking, and he was saying how in my life and in my playing and the way I carry myself, I was playing with more and more conviction, so I immediately said, "That's it!" That is what it is all about. That conviction comes from the faith of you saying that what I put out as a musician will work, that the art that I create is just a snapshot of me, each time. The drug for the artist, I think, is being able to make many, many more snapshots of yourself and create that body of work that you can be proud of, so there's conviction in each step that you take as an artist. And you have to have that, or else you will never have the courage to take them.
AAJ: Everything is in the giving, and you have been giving. Tell us a little bit about the different convictions you portray on your album. How did you organize all of them in your head: balance, love, peace, equality, freedom, courage, I am, truth, faith, surrender and passion?
KS: The way I started choosing and writing the musicto be completely honest, it all just came together. Each of the convictions, they kind of revealed themselves; it was just right. This is this, and this is this, you know? They all just became so connected and it became so clear, but it was one of those things to seriously step out on faith, because I started off knowing that the record was going to be named Conviction, but the subtitles came later, after the music was created; it was so clear to me that the music reflected those convictions. The songs that I wrote were solidified; they were the first ones to be subtitled. But the coverswe just recorded them, and then I started listening to them along with my originals, and that was how I got to identifying which conviction they represented. Mine were the first to be subtitled.
AAJ: Does any of those convictions speak to you more than the others?
KS: The one that really gets to me is courage, and that one is really connected to what we were talking about, the reason why I made the record, and the song that goes with it is called "Cycling Through Reality." And what that is about is the challenges that we deal with on a day-to-day basis, that they can make us or break us, in a way, because if we don't face those challenges, I feel like we are missing out on something, because I believe that life is unfolding within us and around us at all times. And if we come back to that same place every day and we don't face that conversation that we need to have with somebody, we don't face that issue that I need to practice with my drums or I don't face that issue of my relationship with my community ... those are the things that challenge us, and we have to have that courage to face those things so that we can embrace the unfolding inside us and around us. So that one, for me, gets me specially community-wise. Now I am starting to think that playing the drums and making good records isn't enough; it's time to get out in the community and help other people in other ways other than just playing music. So there's that courage of saying, "OK, how else can I help people and how else can I challenge myself by dealing with those challenges and making them opportunities?"
AAJ: What is the deepest purpose of your music?
KS: Well, I was just talking to somebody else about the name of the band, and the reason why I named the band Oracle had to do with one of my idols, Art Blakey. Him and Horace Silver named that band The Jazz Messengers, and the thought of a band bringing a message to people is one of the most beautiful things that I have ever experienced, and I wanted to connect with that. At the same time, I was watching "The Matrix," randomly enough. I noticed that every time Neo went to the Oracle, she never really gave them any answers. She made him look within to find the answers, and she made him have a dialogue within himself and with other people. So that's what I wanted the Oracle band to be about- -not just about sending out messages but creating a dialogue. The purpose of the band itself is to create a dialoguea dialogue about conviction, a dialogue about peace, a dialogue about freedom, a dialogue about passionso that we don't forget and we don't take for granted the things that we have and that we deal with every day, because I think that if we increase our awareness, to really be thankful for those things, then our lives would be better for it. Increasing that awareness of self, and to go inward, that would actually help your outward thinking.
AAJ: And why did you choose Bruce Lee to be water?
KS: That was a really random thing! One of my friends from high school and I were out at a bar one day, and we were just talking about random, random things, and he brought up Bruce Lee and talked about how much of a great thinker he was, and he showed me this link for a Bruce Lee interview, and I watched this interview online, which was his very last interview. The things that he was saying spoke to me so much because if you think about the mantra of being water, being malleable, being able to fit in a cup, being able to fit in a picture of glass, being like the ocean or being like a drop, I think we all in our lives want to be like that. But it is hard to do it because we approach our lives with preconceived notions and thoughts that sometimes we judge things beforehand; before we even get somewhere we are already judging it, and I think that the mantra of being water was so heavy to me that I had to write something around it.
To take it even deeper as a jazz artist, or a so-called jazz artist, he starts talking about styles, and while he is talking about styles he talks about how art is living, and I was like, "Wow, seriously, art is always living. That means you can't really say what style it is because it is still living." So everything that we are creating, everything that we are placing together is actually a breathing, living thing; so being water in that way also is pretty amazing. So I had to deal with that; I really had to deal with that. Which, in all of that, it involves the sense of surrender, which is the conviction behind that one. You have to surrender to whatever the situation is and make the best out of it. All of the convictions are tied up together. I think that's what the beauty of it is. The conviction of surrender kind of goes back to the thing of who you are versus who you want to be. It all starts there, and it all comes back to that. That's why I chose Bruce Lee.
AAJ: You are a deep human being. You talk about a journey of self-discovery and about pushing the audience to ask deeper questions about meaning. Do you ever feel your music can't express everything you are thinking?
KS: No, I think my music is my most honest form of being. I think of playing music as sonic meditation. When I think about meditating, and I actually had this conversation with another musician, I sit and I try to meditate sometimes, and I can't stop my mind from talking. You know, you can't ever really stop it, but I think what you are supposed to do is come out of yourself and watch your mind talkthat awareness of seeing your conscious talkingthen you can kind of shut it down a little bit. I do get to that sometimes with meditation, but when I play my music, it takes me thereit takes me to a place of complete freedom where I can shut my mind down. I am not thinking of who is in the room or what drums am I playing and all of that stuff. So I think that's my most honest form of communication that I have today. Of course, I want to become a better human beingI am more than just a musician. But I feel that I can at least try to convey all of those feelings and that I work every day to try to convey those feelings, to learn my instrument in such a way that I can convey all of those feelings. But again, you never know. The mysticism of the oracle, its beauty, is that you never know how the message is going to be received. Everybody is going to receive their individual message; I may be trying to portray a sense of anger, and somebody else might get a sense of triumph, you just don't know. It can be received in many different ways. I guess, to me, I feel the most grounded in that way, in my music.
AAJ: Comparisons are usually a bad idea, and they are not so kind, but what is the main difference between The Source (World Culture, 2007) and Conviction to you?
KS: That is actually a great question. The Source I felt was a project per se with my peers, an all-star project of my peers, even though we were not all all stars, we were very young artists. But I felt that was kind of a coming-out party for me. I called all of my musician buddies and said, "Let's get together and make some music." I have been writing music since I was in high school. I wrote the song "VCB" with [pianist] Robert Glasper when we were in high school together. This record, in particular, if you noticed, what I wanted to have was a band sound. I wanted all the names to be solidified as a band, not only as a group of many peers but a quintet sound. I wanted to connect with John Coltrane's quartet. When you think about A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1965), you think about music by a quartet by like-minded people, and I wanted Conviction to be like that. We wanted to take you on a seamless journey, like A Love Supreme or Marvin Gaye's Here My Dear (Tamla, 1978). You turn that record on, and you don't want to turn it off because it's done, you want it to keep playing. I wanted to have a band sound that was like that, that you connect with the band sound. And not only that, but I tried to choose the players that I play with more often in the city, in New York, and I think that there is a certain band chemistry and trust there with each of these guys that afforded us a certain freedom in how they express and play my music, which for me is paramount because I don't write music to have it played the way it is written. I write it so that there is self-discovery by the musicians while they are playing it, inspiration. I think that it is the main difference between the two records. Conviction is more a band sound, and that is what I am working more toward, writing specifically for the people in this band. Joe Sanders, an excellent bassist; [guitarist] Mike Morenois an excellent musician; [saxophonist/bass clarinetist] John Ellis;[pianist] Taylor Eigsti; and Alan [Hampton]'s voice has a certain aspect to it that I had to use, so this record was written more specifically with those voices in mind, while the first record was just a lot of my songs that I had written and I wanted to document.
AAJ: It is so hard lately in the last few years to find bands injazz that are actually going to stick together. Everybody seems to be so self-involved in their own story and their own projects nowadays. Bands don't stick together like they used to.
KS: One of the things is that the climate of jazz has changed so much. When I think of those bands, like Cannonball's band, they would go to San Francisco and play there for three months; now those three-month gigs have turned into one-night gigs. So that continuity and that spirit of camaraderie that they got we have to create in a night's time or on the record. So I wanted to try to include that feeling in how we play music.
AAJ: What do you look for in your band members?
KS: Service. I am hugely into service. I think that if you serve the music, if you know how to listen to the music, then you know how to serve othersthat serving empathy that a great musician has, where anything that's happening, your awareness is hyped. I think that each musician that I have played with and that I learned being withTerence Blanchard and playing behind [singer] Diane Reevesthe greatest musicians are the ones with the more awareness, and I noticed that especially with [pianist] Herbie Hancock. Everything you are doing, he is listening to it, and he is always there to serve the music. It's the first thing that I noticed about playing with him. He was listening to me harder, I felt, than I was listening to him. Of course, all of my attention was on him, and I am listening as hard as I think I can, but yet he was playing things back to me in ways that were amazing. I could not believe it. So whenever I play with people, I just have to make sure that they have that same amount of service in their playing, where everything they do is for the greater good of the band.
AAJ: How hard is it to lead a band as a drummer?
KS: The funny thing to me is that the drummer is always the band leader! [Laughs.] Think about it. A drummer can make or break a band. I always feel that, especially playing with great musicians, each of us has a leadership role, each of us takes a leadership role, if there is no ego. That's another thing I look for in a musician. And in that service, that's what that is, the lack of that ego. So in a great band, each of us has that leadership already in place. If you notice, I play more for color than I do for anything. I play for melody, I play for harmonic motion, and I play for rhythm, too, but I want to paint a picturethat is the main thing that I want to do. So in the way I play things, it makes me lead because I can push the spectrum a little more and kind of push everybody in the back a little bit and then pull back and not play. I can play hard, or I can play to get away from the drum and leave the stage to everybody else. I think that's what leadership is. I think leadership also comes in letting the other guys be the leaders, knowing when to play and knowing when not to play. They may have to turn around and look at me sometimes, but that's about it.
AAJ: Tell us about your faith in relation to your music.
KS: I grew up Baptist Christian, in church and everything, and it is all connected to me because I think playing music, again, is a sonic meditation. I think about it as one of the highest forms of being. So to me, it is definitely connected to what I do because what I do gives me perspective; I rise. Somebody asked me once, "Why do you play music for?" and I came across that prayer, and that is the first prayer that you hear when you start playing Conviction. "Lord, make me an instrument for thy peace." So I found that as I became an instrument, in my living and what my life is about, not only as a drummer and a band leader and all of that, but if I can do that in my community and so forth, this whole earth, if I become an instrument of peace, then everything has more meaning, and it can be reflected on my music. On each of my drum sticks, that prayer is written. So every time I look at those sticks, it puts everything into perspective. That is where my faith is truly connected with the way I play and why I play and everything.
AAJ: How did jazz happen for you? ten KS: I was in the marching band in middle school, and I wanted to go to a marching-band high school, one of the best in Texas. And my mom was like, "How many professional bands do you see out there?" There were none. So, "If you really want to play and deal with these drums, you need to go to a performing-arts high school." So at the time, I started studying with a teacher, and I learned a drum solo to get in the school. Imagine my first day of high school. There was Robert Glasper, Mike Moreno, Mark Kelly, all of these guys. "Wait a minute, this is fun!" That's how I got into jazz. Everybody was so creative. We were having fun. We didn't know what we were really doing. We were listening to the records and figuring out where it was going, but it was fun, and we still do that. But at the time it was fun, and it still is fun. That is why we are connected to this creative music we call jazz. Or what Nick Payton calls "BAM!" [Laughs.]
AAJ: Who have you learned the most from so far?
KS: That's a hard question. My mother is one of the biggest influences in my life. I can go by time. My mom is the first and longest influence, all my life. And then Terence Blanchard, whom I have known for 10 years. Everything that he has has been part of me in those years. Mostly everything that has happened in my career has been connected with his words, his actions, letting me be blessed to play with Herbie Hancock and James Moody and all of these different people that I came to play with by playing with him. Then my brother. When you can see somebody with a humble spiritone of your peers doing great things, who is talented and doing great deedsstanding next to you and shows you that you can do it, he is one of those people that I love having in my life, for me and for our whole community of people. So my mother, Terence and my brother. There's many more people, but maybe these are the ones that keep me grounded.
AAJ: You are a grateful man.
KS: Oh, I am! I am blessed.
AAJ: Can you see yourself doing something different, hypothetically, with your life, if you were not a musician?
KS: Oh, I would love to play basketball, but I am not cut out for that. I love sports so much, and to me it is so akin to music. There's empathy, leadership, sharingI get the same feeling from it.
Kendrick Scott Oracle, Conviction (Concord, 2013)
Gretchen Parlato, The Lost and Found (ObliqSound, 2011)
Mike Moreno, First in Mind (Criss Cross, 2011)
Kendrick Scott, Reverence (Criss Cross, 2010)
Chihiro Yamanaka, Forever Begins (Verve, 2010)
Myron Walden, What We Share (Demi Sound, 2010)
Myron Walden, To Feel (Demi Sound, 2010)
Will Vinson, Stockholm Syndrome (Criss Cross, 2010)
Gretchen Parlato, In a Dream (ObliqSound, 2009)
Terence Blanchard, Choices (Concord, 2009)
Mike Moreno, Third Wish (Criss Cross, 2009)
Myron Walden, Momentum (Demi Sound, 2009)
Lage Lund, Early Songs (Criss Cross 2008)
Chihiro Yamanaka, Abyss (Verve, 2007)
Terence Blanchard, A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina) (Blue Note, 2007)
Kendrick Scott, The Source (World Culture Music, 2006)
Danny Grissett, Promise (Criss Cross, 2006)
Patrick Cornelius, Lucid Dream (Acoustic Recording, 2006)
Terence Blanchard, Flow (Blue Note, 2005)
David Doruzka, Hidden Paths (Cube-Metier, 2004)
All Photos: Courtesy of Kendrick Scott