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Kendrick Scott: Making Walls into Bridges

Rob Garratt By

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Trump wants to build a wall to keep people out. But what I'm saying is a wall that's preexisting is a provocation—a provocation for you to break through. —Kendrick Scott
Kendrick Scott authored one of the most compelling jazz releases of last year with A Wall Becomes a Bridge (Blue Note, 2019), a nuanced meditation on identity, history and prejudice, shepherded under the direction of producer and former band mate Derrick Hodge. Pairing gorgeous, searching improvisatory canvases with break beat interludes and samples from guest DJ Sundance, it's a record that feels unmistakably engaged in its moment, and marks the culmination of Scott's work with his quintet Oracle, unmistakably colored by the contributions of long-term guitarist Mike Moreno, pianist Taylor Eigsti, reedist John Ellis and bassist Joe Sanders. The fourth release credited to the group, and the second released on Blue Note Records, comes after the Berklee graduate's long spell in Terrence Blanchard's band—who eventually pushed Scott to devote himself to his own work—and stints with Herbie Hancock, Gretchen Parlato and Charles Lloyd. Scott stopped by Hong Kong late in 2019 to perform at the daylong Jazz Gala—The Legend and Beyond show, which paired visiting internationals with local groups and saw the drummer sit in with and play material by bands led by two local guitar heavyweights. Scott brought an unshowy virtuosity to proceedings, conjuring a rich groove beneath the funky fusion flavors of Tjoe man cheung's collective, Tjoe & NTBM. Subtler textures were reserved for festival curator Teriver Cheung's nuanced sound-painting, enlivening material from the guitarist's excellent recent album, Episodes (Drip Music, 2019), to create an impressionistic portrait of a day in Hong Kong. And while he was briefly in that same city, we took time out from Scott's own day, grabbing him fresh from rehearsals in his hotel lobby, to talk walls, bridges and dreams.

All About Jazz: First of all, I've got to say, it's quite a coup to have you over here playing with these guys in Hong Kong. What made you want to take this step and come out here?

Kendrick Scott: Well, I mean I've played with [co-headliner] Dayna Stephens for a long time, and Dayna cut for Teriver and said he was a great musician and I've heard that he sounded good. So, you know, I came to support the music scene here in Hong Kong and to be a part of that as well. I heard Teriver's last record and it's really, really beautiful.

AAJ: I'd like to talk about your record. I've been playing it a lot these last few months, while our city is having its own issues of division, and I still feel like it's unraveling. It's something you can't completely absorb easily—and I understand wasn't easy for you to put it together either.

KS: Um no, it was a tying process—going back and forth, dealing with a lot of, yes, yes, no, no, yes, yes, no, no. Dealing with the insecurities and writing and composing and presenting the music that I wanted it to be presented, but then surrendering to what it was in the moment. Which is hard to do sometimes when you have grand ideas about what you think it should be, and sometimes that's not what it is in the moment. So, you have to acquiesce to what it is today.

AAJ: There was a period of writer's block. Was the problem that you weren't writing, or that you weren't happy with what you were writing?

KS: Yeah, I wasn't happy. But the thing about that is... my personality, I'll never really be happy with anything until it's done and finished. I'm sure I'll look back on it years later and say, okay, it's all right. You know? But in the moment, I'm never satisfied. And I think that's a good thing and a bad thing. When it leads you to a certain balance it's good, but it's a bad thing when it takes you over the edge. When it stifles your creativity it's bad, but when it propels you, when it says, no, let's try that again, let's do it again. That's cool. That's what the album is about. That balance.

AAJ: And what was going through your mind when you're writing those tunes? It's obviously very reflective.

KS: Oh yeah, definitely. I mean, half of them I wrote at home and the other half we wrote in the studio. We wrote to the sentiments of what "A Wall Becomes a Bridge" was, what that sounded like. We wrote each sentiment down on a chalkboard in the studio and just kind of thought what they would sound like. So we composed the music and played it right there in the studio.

AAJ: How long were you in the studio?

KS: It was, maybe five days total. Yeah.

AAJ: So I presume you think it's the best thing you've done?

KS: It's one of the best things I've done, definitely. I mean, I'm proud of the message because I think it's the true message of where I was as a person at that time. There's a part of my personality that I'm constantly dealing with, and a lot of times when I make records, I make records about things that I need to deal with in my life and that I'm hoping other people are dealing with at the same time. So I feel like, especially in the US and probably all over the world, we're trying to have optimism. And to me that's what the record is about. A Wall Becomes A Bridge: It's taking the wall that exists and making it fall down, and making it become a bridge. And realizing, the walls that we have around us are opportunities for us to break through. So that's what it's about.

AAJ: So how would a composition typically start? What, what kind of occurs to you—is it a little melodic fragment or rhythm...

KS: It's usually melody, a singable melody, somewhat rhythmic, and then I harmonize it and then that sparks a mood. For me, every time it's different, different scenes for different things.

AAJ: So the meaning often becomes apparent later.

KS: Oh yeah, definitely. Yeah. Sometimes melodies just come and I just sing them. Then later on I think about what they mean. They come in all different types of seeds and colors and everything. Sometimes it's just a rhythmic idea. Sometimes I'll write a whole song with no notes. It's just rhythms.

AAJ: When did you start composing?

KS: I started writing music in high school, I guess, but there's only one song that I wrote then that still play.

AAJ: And you started on percussion?

KS: Yeah, percussion instruments. My mom's a pianist, and she taught me theory on piano, but I've never really played piano.

AAJ: It does feel like right now there's a lot of very strong drummer leaders coming through—yourself, Makaya McCraven, Antonio Sanchez is also doing wonderful things, Brian Blade's been doing amazing stuff forever. People expect drummer bands are going to be very showy, very bombastic, but it feels like there's a lot of very interesting textural work being made. Have you noticed that trend, or see any kind of reason why people are responding, or people are creating that way?

KS: That's a good question. It's hard to answer for me because I just feel like people are laying more into what their personalities are, and so instead of going for the bombastic drummer leader thing, I just think it's more widely accepted to just be yourself. And Blade was the one that taught me that, you know, you listen to his music and it's like; wow, what is this? You know, the more question marks I have about people in music, the more I think to myself, well, that's okay to be yourself. You know what I mean? I feel like Blade played with so many different great artists that it wasn't a question of whether he knew how to do this, or he knew how to do that. Which I think sometimes jazz police have [this idea] where it's just like; well, if your music doesn't do this, then how would I know you could swing, and how would I know, whatever? I think it's more just about your own personality, who you are, and you create a band around that, and it exists in its own space. And so I don't actually know. That's a hard question. That's a hard question because, I mean, Art Blakey was bombastic, but he still had textural things that he did, and Tony Williams was bombastic, but he had textures. I don't know, it's crazy.

AAJ: Would they be your heroes if you had to pick, say, five kind of all-time inspirations?

KS: I mean, Roy Haynes, Jack DeJohnette, you know, you can't really...

AAJ: Well, who have you been most anxious about meeting or encountering?

KS: Well, I'm always anxious around Roy Haynes. Yeah, I'll see Roy Haynes once a year, maybe twice a year. And every time it's like, it's weird, 'cause that's my man.

AAJ: But you must get younger guys looking up to you that way now.

KS: Right, and that's a little weird to me, but I do understand it in some ways because I guess now that I'm ten years out of school, or more; I see how I was going to hear Brian Blade, who's like 10 years older than me, and I remember bugging him while I was at college and being like that. So now it's a continuum. But you know, I still feel like the reason why I'm still around is I'm still learning, and I don't know anything. So I feel like if I stay around and be a master student instead of worrying being a master teacher, then then I'll keep them off forever.

AAJ: Do you still have much of a relationship with Blade?

KS: Yeah, we see each other a lot. Just on the road.

AAJ: Talking about being "ten years out of college," it sort of feels like you're part of a generation, right? It's been a really fertile period— I don't need to tell you that everyone's been talking about this new golden era of jazz for a few years now, right? How do you feel about that? Do you feel like something's changed—did it start with it the new audience, or the musicians?

KS: I don't know, I don't feel that anything's changing. It's funny—the music is constantly changing, it's always changing. I just think it's what people are exposed to. You know what I mean? If you go to New York and just chill and go to a club every night and hear music, you're going to hear the whole gamut of what music is, from hip-hop to funk to rock to everything. It's all happening right there, but it's just what makes it on a record and what makes it even over here. What makes it to Hong Kong? Some things get marketed and some things don't.

Or I feel like all this stuff has been happening forever. It's just now people are coming to the attention of it. You know what I mean? The music has been growing like this way before us. We didn't start shit. It's just always existing in its own space. People laid the groundwork; I think the people who come before you are way more important.

AAJ: A big part of this has been the increasingly organic crossover with hip-hop. When was the first time you really heard something that truly captured the spirit of hip-hop and jazz together? There were always experiments, but when did you first encounter someone doing it, like, right?

KS: I mean, [Guru's] Jazzmatazz (Vol. 1, Chrysalis Records, 1993) was the one where I first felt, "Oh, this is the right mixture of both." But I was young when that came out. You know, I was still in high school or maybe middle school, but that was my first time hearing that kind of stuff put together.

But in essence, you know, hip-hop is jazz; it's just jazz by another name. You listened to Busta Rhymes, and if you solo his vocal and then listen to a Charlie Parker solo, and have that by itself in one ear and the other in the other ear— you'd just be like, Oh, okay, Buster's doing with words what Charlie Parker did with notes. It's the same thing to me. So once you started looking at everything as one, then you really start seeing it's just all a progression.

AAJ: Before you went to Berklee and committed your life to this journey, studying jazz, what were you listening to as a teenager?

KS: When I was 14 and I'd gotten to performing arts high school, I just really listened to a lot of jazz. Not all along—before that I listened to gospel music, pop music, R&B, lots of different types of stuff. But I just started listening to a lot of jazz in high school just because I was exposed to it and around a lot of musicians that were playing it and I knew that was the direction that I wanted to head, because of the freedom that it offered me to play.

AAJ: You're playing here in Hong Kong just a week before we have Robert Glasper coming to town, who played on your debut album The Source (World Culture Music, 2007). What's that relationship like today?

KS: That's my brother. You know, we went to high school together [at Houston's famed High School for the Performing and Visual Arts] and he's doing great things. I mean, he's in the history books at this point. No, I'm always happy for him, to see what he does. He's one of the people who have truly blended jazz and hip-hop in a way that is authentic to him, that really only he can do it that way because he has those relationships and, and that sound in mind— where I think other people are trying to do it and it doesn't have the same effect because it's not authentic. So that's why I don't really call myself anything jazz and hip-hop. When people say that about my music, I'm kind of like, yeah not really. I may have some of those influences, but yeah, it's never, it's not going towards that. It's not really authentic to me. I love hip-hop. I listen to hip-hop, but my music isn't [hip-hop].

AAJ: Whatever you call what you're doing, you're definitely part of something pretty special. It just seems like a really wonderful time in music right now.

KS: [Laughs] Well, you know there were cats way before us, you know. Our big brothers: Gregory Hutchinson, Eric Harland, Karriem Riggins... and before them, Ralph Peterson, Jeff "Tain" Watts, Lewis Nash, and then before them it's all of the cats—all of the cats—Billy Hart and Al Foster and you know, it's just, it's just a historic thing that I think is just carrying on. 'Cause it has to, yeah, it has to.

AAJ: Going back to your record for a second, a lot of people remarked on the title, which seemed to be an explicit statement about your country's president.

KS: I mean, in some ways. But it's weird because people don't sometimes actually see it the way it is, because it's actually "a wall becomes a bridge," meaning Trump wants to build a wall to keep people out. But what I'm saying is a wall that's preexisting is a provocation. A wall is a provocation for you to break through. It's almost like saying that, just because you want to build this wall, if you actually build it, it's going to come down anyway because you're provoking us to come together. So in the spirit of optimism, that's what the record was made out of—the spirit of bridges, not walls. It was mainly my internal things that I was dealing with in another type of way, other than trying to be some big political statement.

AAJ: And it came out on Blue Note, again. It must have been a big deal to establish that relationship.

KS: Yeah, definitely. From what I was doing on my own (World Culture Music) and stuff that I did with Concord Music Group, it was a no brainer to be with the company who was the vanguard of jazz labels, and to be a part of the family that I was essentially ushered into when I started touring with Terence—and before I even started touring I got a Blue Note scholarship when I was 18 years old to go to a jazz camp. So I met [executive] Bruce Lundvall when I was 18. Most of the records that I listened to when I was a kid had that Blue Note stamp on it. That was always the sound that I heard in my mind, those were the starting points of many of the sounds that I try to make now.

AAJ: You mentioned Terence Blanchard. You made several wonderful records together and I'm sure that was a very, very enduring relationship. Can you just talk me through how that kind of happened between you guys?

KS: Well, I met Terrence through Eric Harland who went to my high school, and Eric moved on and was playing with different artists—I think he was going to play with Charles Lloyd at that time. Different artists just ushered me into playing with Terrence; Terrence was really gracious and gave me the opportunity to play in a band and that lasted for 11 years. I mean, I can't say enough about how much he's been a mentor and a great father-slash-big brother figure for me—from letting me be in his band to also encouraging me to record my first record and to write music. Also letting us write music for his band. I mean he was the one that started it all.

AAJ: So would you call that your most important musical relationship?

KS: Yeah, that one and then also getting to play with Herbie Hancock—just getting to be around Herbie was like the pinnacle as well. It only lasted for three months as far as touring with his band, but that left a huge impression on me and how I view the world and view music. That was enough—one night is enough being around Herbie—between Terrence and Herbie, I learned so much.

A lot of people just talk about the music, they talk about the notes and all that stuff. The [2019] Blue Note documentary is called Beyond the Notes—and I feel like Terrence and Herbie are "beyond the notes." They are in another stratosphere where they're trying to communicate something through their music. And that's where I want to live.

AAJ: I think the first record I heard you on was Blanchard's A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina) (Blue Note, 2007)—a very heavy record, and a very percussive one.

KS: Yeah, that was a heavy record. We were on the road touring while Terrance's family was lost. He couldn't talk to his mom and we're on the road trying to play gigs. That's what I'm saying—music is only one drop in the ocean of life—Wayne Shorter said that. You think about it, it's very small compared to what's really going on.

AAJ: Is Wayne Shorter the greatest living jazz composer?

KS: Oh, for me, definitely, yeah. We've got to play and meet him... yeah, he's great.

AAJ: Anyone else you'd love to play with that you haven't yet?

KS: Oh, I love to play with Chick Corea. I only got to play with Chick once or twice. I'd love to play with a lot of people—I mean, I want to play with Stevie Wonder, you know what I mean? Different cats. It's a long line—and not just jazz musicians.

AAJ: You're allowed to enjoy the afterglow of your last record a little longer, but what are you planning next? Any idea?

KS: It's not set in stone yet. It's still coming. They still want to carry on, the Oracle band, but do other things as well. So I have a lot of projects in mind, but what's going to come? You don't know. If you would have asked me what this next record was going to be that I was going to put out in 2019, I wouldn't have said, "it's called A Wall Becomes a Bridge, and this and this and that. So it's kind of just like, I can't really guess about what it's going to be at this moment.

AAJ: Last but not least, bringing it back to the present day. Music is obviously a universal language, improvised music especially. You travelled to Hong Kong to play with these cats that you've never met before, with very, very different life experiences, but with their own struggles right now. What can you learn from each other, and what can you communicate?

KS: Music is supposed to wash away the dust of everyday life. Music is supposed to be our getaway from all of these things, and jazz especially was created to communicate. Most of black American music was made to communicate. So in that same spirit of communication and of love, and struggle, we play this music to represent that, and to figure out a way to communicate beyond whatever's happening outside of the music, knowing at the same time that what we're doing is bigger than music. It's realizing that love and communication is bigger than any other type of thing that will separate us—what we look like, or who we worship, or where we live, or any of that. It's not about any of that. It's just about communicating through the music, giving all of yourself, being honest, being authentic.

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