Kendrick Scott: Oracle for Good Music

R.J. DeLuke BY

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The band is named Oracle, because we send out the messages to the people. We let you find your own answers. The oracle doesn
Kendrick Scott, at 26, is already one of the very finest drummers on the jazz scene, possessing an open mind, a beautiful feel for melody and tasty style that fits a myriad of situations. He's been working steady with major jazz artists since the day he graduated from Berklee College of Music in 1998. He's grateful for it, but thoughtful about the situation and aware of the consequences that can occur with both ego and complacency. But those attributes don't appear to be a part of Scott.

He's aware. He's sensitive to the perils of the music business, but passionate about the art form. He hopes to help spread the art of the music and its healing and peaceful message to the world through his band and his own record label, guided by his love for the music.

"I realize I have to take initiatives to do the things that I want to do. Sometimes musicians can be complacent about the way they feel about their music or they way think everybody should recognize them for what they do, says Scott. "Sometimes that doesn't happen. Sometimes you have to put yourself out there first, then people can come around.

What Scott has done is put himself out there with a sparking debut album, The Source, on his own World Culture Music label. It features some of the finest young musicians on the New York City scene, a collective band he calls Oracle. Scott's precise and tasty drum work has been heard with the likes of the Crusaders, Terence Blanchard, Dianne Reeves, Maria Schneider, Nicholas Payton, David Sanborn, Mark Turner and many others, and it's present here as well.

But also on display is Scott's brilliant skill as a writer, particularly as an architect of beautiful melodies, the likes of which are not usually associated with drummers. Some of the compositions were written years ago. The album, a mixture of exquisite melodies that are the foundation for heady improvisations, is one of the finest of the year so far. Don't confuse great melody for "soft jazz. This is good music. Period.

"I really thought the best way to describe my music was not with one word or category. But it is jazz. It does have a lot of jazz influences. I developed some words, like: the music is lyrical. It has space. The music has momentum. It has a lot of contour. That's the way I explain the music to people, rather than saying it's jazz, because jazz has so many subtitles, which is the great thing about it, but sometimes you wouldn't know what it is.

"Sometimes I want to describe it as modern jazz. But even I, as a drummer and as a musician, have a hard time knowing what people are talking about when they say 'new jazz.' Cool and bop, you know those things. As far as trying to describe 'newer' or the latest music, it's kind of like, 'What do we call our music. What are we supposed to say about it?' That's why I've tried to develop those terms. I'm still working on my list. I'm going to try and come up with some more so people can say, 'Oh yeah. That's right on the dot.'

We all have snapshots of things in our lives that we leaf through from time to time, whether from nostalgia or feelings of melancholy, or one brought on by the other. Snapshots of growing up, of landmark moments in one's life. Events. Trips. For the multi-talented Scott, it takes on a bit of a different meaning. He likens the new recording to a snapshot of where he is at this time. If it is, it will be a great thing to look back on in later years. It is a harbinger of good things to come.

Scott has been the drummer with Terence Blanchard for the last four years. "He's been encouraging me to write more and to get my vision forth. This record is out is due to him saying there's never a right time to take a snapshot of yourself, says Scott. "So many people wait. The way he puts it is: Somebody pulls out their Polaroid... say you're in Rio at the beach with sand in your eyes and all ... if you wait too long you're going to lose the moment. So let's take a snapshot of that moment and then move on to something else. That's what this record is. It's a snapshot of me at this point. I'm really eager to do a new record already. I'm thinking about it, compositionally and concept-wise."

The title cut is a composition Scott wrote that appeared on Blanchard's Flow (Blue Note, 2005) produced by Herbie Hancock. The album received two Grammy nominations, one for best instrumental jazz album and another for best instrumental solo for Hancock's playing on Scott's composition. That was a thrill for the drummer, but the song title, now CD title, has a deeper meaning for this Houston native whose musical roots stem from the church.

"When we were doing Terence's record, we happened to be sitting in the control room. We said, 'Herbie, you want to play?' He's like, 'Yeah.' And we were like, 'Whoa! OK,' says Scott with a grin. "And he came in and sight-read it and we did two takes. It was so amazing for me to be around him and see how he sight-read it and created his own vibe on it within an hour or so.

"But the significance of the title is: I think everybody has their own source. I never want to try to create absolutes. That also has to do with the concept of the band itself, Oracle. The band sends out messages; it relays a message to you like the Jazz Messengers. That's where I got the inspiration for the name, from Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. The band is named Oracle, because we send out the messages to the people. We let you find your own answers. The oracle doesn't give answers, just questions for you to think about. The source is a general umbrella. It can be your god, it can be your family, it can be music, it can be art. It can be whatever. It all deals with your personal source.

From the opening of the first song, "View From Above, the CD sets moods, paints pictures. It has delicate intricacy, and moments of intensity. Scott propels it all with his typically tasteful drumming, knowing when to caress and when to create tension and bombast. Highlights include "Memories Wavering Echo, which Scott starts out on mallets, making the drums sound like ocean waves crashing on the shore. The bass clarinet of Myron Walden is evocative and pianist Aaron Parks gets sounds that, to these ears, could be that of dolphins or other life in the mysterious deep. Majestic and eerie at first, it swells into a musical exploration.

"Journey is a sweet melody with a memorable vocal by Gretchen Parlato, embellished by guitar and sax. "The Source starts out serenely and builds with intensity, even as the melody remains. Scott's drums beneath vocalizing and other solos are superb.

At no point are the drums the focus, and it would be difficult to guess that the CD comes from a drummer.

Says Scott, "One of my main focuses was to make an album that was like that. Something that's funny about me is, the more I grow within myself as a person, the more I realize who I am. When I think about my drumming, I don't think of it as being virtuoso, like a lot of my friends are. I think about my drumming more as supporting a vibe or supporting melodies and songs. I grew up in the church where the melodies and the messages were the main thing that needed to be supported. The drums and everything was subordinate to the message. That's why I play the way I do and I write the way I do. I'm always being subordinate to the melody and the song.

"Most of my songs are actually songs that I've written by singing them. All of the songs I write I try to make them melodic and singable. The audience can go home and whoever is listening to the CD, they can sing the melodies easily and be in contact with the vision.

When Scott made the decision it was time to record, he went for it. "It seems like everyone is sitting around waiting for a record. I felt that vibe from a lot of people. I didn't want to do that. So I said that when I do this record, I'm just going to do it on my own. I'm not going to worry about producers or worry about trying to get signed with a record company. I just wanted to put the CD out and put the music out. It also led me to start my label, World Culture Music, which is a collective label. We're all making our CDs the way we want to make them. We're all bringing them together under World Culture Music. It's not a traditional record label.

Scott says the CD is a culmination of music that he started writing as far back as high school. Over the years, he felt the compositions weren't really good enough to come out and not representative of something he might want to play on the drums. They weren't set up as a drum showcase. "But then, you grow older and you start realizing things. It's like, 'Wow. These are actually cool songs.' You just need to play the message, play the song, instead of worrying about trying to feature yourself.

Many of the musicians, too, came from early parts of Scott's life in Texas.

"The record is amazing because the guys on the record have come from all parts of my life, new periods and early periods, he says. "Robert Glasper [piano], Walter Smith [sax], Mike Moreno [guitar], we went to high school together at a school called the Houston School for Performing and Visual Arts. The school is very significant in that Jason Moran went there. Brian Michael Cox went there, he's a famous producer now, with Mary J. Blige and Usher, and writing songs for them. Also Beyonce Knowles went there. Texas is very fertile with talent.

From Blanchard's band there is Derrick Hodge [bass] and Aaron Parks [piano] and Lionel Loueke [guitar]. "I also went to Berklee with Lionel and Lage Lund [guitar]. Seamus Blake [sax], we have known each other for a while, but we never played together until the CD. Walter Smith was unavailable to finish the CD. So I wanted to call somebody that I love and I called Seamus. Myron Walden [sax] I've known for a while. Gretchen Parlato, we actually moved to New York at the same time.

Scott had musically influential friends back in Houston, but the first influences were his parents. His mother was a classical pianist, educated at the University of North Texas. His brother is a pianist himself and organist. His father played trombone throughout college. The family was heavily involved in the church and in gospel music. That was also the music usually heard around the Scott household.

Kendrick started drum lessons at age six and played the drum kit. But he laughs at how his fondness for drums progressed.

"The crazy thing about Texas is: high school football and high school bands are off the charts. So I wanted to be in the high school marching band. And I wanted to play snare drum, because the snare drums were the most virtuoso drummers that I had seen. There was a certain band that I wanted to join because they had the hottest band in Houston. So I said 'Man, I want to play snare drums.' When it was time to go to high school, I had to make that decision ... My mother was like, 'Are you thinking about becoming a professional snare drum player?' I didn't see any professional snare drums. So she said I had to go to the performing arts high school."

In getting his act together for that, Scott got into jazz. "I got my audition together. I went in and I played 'Seven Steps to Heaven' and ever since, that was it. It started right there. It was one of those things where I was talented enough to get into the school, and then being at the Performing Arts High School being around so many guys and being given so many opportunities from Bob Morgan, our teacher. Everything just kind of fell into place.

Such was the wealth of musical talent in Houston that his earliest influences on drums were hometown friends Chris Dave and Eric Harland, both prominent in the current music scene. "Then checking out records by Max Roach, Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette, all those guys, says Scott. "People like Shadow Wilson. Drummers that don't get recognized much. Roy McCurdy. I used to makes tapes, go up in the library and listen to them at the school.

The high school was also an introduction to the real music world. "Our teacher actually went out and got gigs for us. We were playing gigs maybe three times a week. If we kept our grades straight, we actually played some gigs and make a little bit of money too, he chuckles. "That was more incentive to be on it with the grades, and also be on it musically. Our best combo would be the one to be doing all the gigs. We would do parties and functions. If you think about just the experience of going to a gig, being on time, being dressed, being ready to go. Also speaking with people, and everything, when you get there. We had those experiences in high school, and some people don't even have that when they get out of college. Those were great experiences.

His high school career included student awards given by Downbeat Magazine and the Clifford Brown/Stan Getz award, given by the International Association of Jazz Educators and The National Foundation for the Advancement of the Arts.

Outside of the drums Scott, like many others, was into the music of Wayne Shorter. But it was the sound of a band as a working and growing unit that also had a strong effect on the young drummer. "I'll tell you about the influence on the band. In Oracle, it has a lot of influences from things like the Pat Metheny Group, to things like Mark Turner and Kurt Rosenwinkel's group, things from Miles' band with Tony and Wayne and everybody, and Wayne and Herbie's music. A lot of Wayne Shorter, the feeling of his music. And also Brian Blade Fellowship.

"There are so many influences on me. I love Cannonball Adderley. I just love the sound of bands, not just all-star sounds where it's great people, but they're not all sounding as one. Ahmad Jamal's trio, that's a band. When I put that on, oh man. Everybody's working together. They all rise and fall together. So many other people's bands. Trane. All the greats. Freddie Hubbard.

After high school, it was off to the renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston for young Kendrick. The experience was different than many, because he majored in music education, "which had nothing to do with jazz and pretty much nothing to do with playing the drums. So I would go to class and be learning how to finger the flute and how to conduct. Then at night I would play. All my other friends—besides Walter Smith. Walter was doing it too—were in the jazz department. It's funny that I wasn't in the jazz department. I had a few ensembles and things, but I was totally on the other side in school. But outside of school I was with everybody else. Part of that experience was hanging out with outstanding musicians like Lage Lund. Christian Scott, Jeremy Pelt and many more.

Scott didn't have to wait long after graduation to find work.

"I went straight on the road with Joe Sample and the Crusaders. I was real blessed. The crazy thing about it is that when I had my cap and gown on, Terence [Blanchard] called me to join his band, but I had already committed to Joe Sample for the summer. I literally graduated and went on tour with the Crusaders. When I had about a week off, I moved to New York. Then I finished out the tour with the Crusaders and in October I started up with Terence. That was 2003.

He's worked steadily ever since with many of New York luminaries. As he spoke, he was ready to go off with John Scofield and John Patitucci for a gig in Hartford, Connecticut. "It's been surreal. It's a blessing, the way that everything happened. I know so many people come to New York and really struggle and work really hard to get where I just started at. The only thing I can do is work hard and try not to take for granted the really great things that have happened.

Now, his band Oracle is important to him, in addition to his work with trumpeter Blanchard. "The Source is a real achievement for me. I'm starting to accept who I am, and also realize it's only a snap shot of that moment. The growth can be documented further.

Oracle "is definitely something I'm going to keep going. It's all based on availability. Right now, the regular band that I've been having has been Derrick Hodge on bass, Aaron Parks on piano, Mike Moreno on guitar, Myron Walter on alto. The tenor has been changing. Everybody's availability has been different. But that's the core group.

"Other people have been coming in as special guests. We invite Gretchen up as a special guest most of the time. Robert Glasper and Lionel Loueke are expanding out so much and touching so many people's lives. Actually everybody in the band has their own thing going. I just try to keep the Oracle name and the vibe together and try to be consistent with the music, but I know the players will be interchanging because they're involved in so many things and they are bandleaders on their own.

He wants to keep developing his music and his concept for Oracle. Scott is also about bringing quality music to the people that doesn't dip to low common denominators. It's a concern of his that music remain high art, and that people be exposed to arts of all kind; music of all kind.

"I hate to draw the line sometimes between good and bad music. But there's a lot of bad music that's popular right now, he says in earnest. "I don't think we should dumb down our audience. I think we should build our audience back up for good music. That starts with education.

"I'm not even talking about jazz. I'm talking about having arts in schools. Kids being exposed to classical music. I don't want to take hip-hop away from anybody. I don't want to take rock away from anybody. I actually want to give everybody everything. Kids should be hearing what klezmer music sounds like. They should know classical music. They should hear a little Miles in elementary school. They should hear whatever. It's the lack of them hearing everything that makes them closed-minded when they get older.

Scott's CD release party was in May, 2007 at the Jazz Standard in New York City and he hopes to be booking more gigs for the band. He also recently recorded a new CD with Blanchard, called A Tale of God's Will. It's comprised of the music from a documentary Blanchard scored for When the Levees Broke, the Spike Lee documentary about the tragedy of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. "We each put a composition on the record. My composition 'Mantra' is on the CD. The whole CD is with an orchestra, so I wrote it for orchestra. It's a really beautiful CD. We're going to be starting to do some gigs with the orchestra, featuring some of that music.

In early 2008, Scott will be featured as an artist on the Monterey Jazz Festival 50th anniversary tour, along with Blanchard, Derrick Hodge, Nneena Freelon on vocals, Benny Green on piano and James Moody on tenor sax. So times remain busy and Scott has his eyes open already for the next project for his own band.

"For me, The Source has been a two-and-a-half year project, so I'm moving on. I'm already thinking about concepts for the next record. I haven't completely written everything yet, but I definitely have concepts, the name and all of that stuff. It's already working in my head. I'm keeping that stuff to myself right now. Let's get ready for the next one. Like I said, it's a snapshot. I don't want to wait too long. I don't want to see this snapshot now, and I'm 26, and wait until 36 until the next one, says Scott, grinning, "I'll have all my gray hairs by then.

Selected Discography

Kendrick Scott, The Source (World Culture Music, 2007)
Danny Grissett Trio, Promise (Criss Cross, 2006)
Patrick Cornelius, Lucid Dream (Acoustic Recording, 2006)
Terence Blanchard, Flow (Blue Note, 2005)
David Doruzka, Hidden Paths (Cube-Metier, 2004)

Photo Credits:
Top Photo: Liz Lindler
Center Photo: Courtesy of Firehouse 12
Bottom Photo: Courtesy of Vater Percussion

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