Kendrick Scott: Conviction of a Jazz Oracle

Esther Berlanga-Ryan By

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Kendrick Scott, considered by many as one of the most gifted drummers of his generation and trusted on stage by peers such as trumpeter Terence Blanchard, is ready to take the spotlight as a bandleader once more with his third studio project. This is a record about a true desire to act as an instrument of peace and a heart full of faith and realizations; a jazz musician telling his own story as he perceives it—and as his band members understand it.

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 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 living—I 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.

Kendrick Scott Oracle—ConvictionKS: 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 I—the producer of the record—started 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 music—to 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 covers—we 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 dialogue—a dialogue about conviction, a dialogue about peace, a dialogue about freedom, a dialogue about passion—so 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.
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