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Kris Funn: Bass Player, Story Teller

R.J. DeLuke By

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I wanted to approach [composing] from a very accessible way, almost like I'm playing and writing a letter to my nine-year-old self —Kris Funn
Kris Funn didn't start out on bass but, coming from a musical family, there was little chance he wouldn't at least test the water and see what music was all about. In time, the bass reached out and grabbed him.

He's since had a career that has had him playing his immense bass skills to the bands of Kenny Garrett, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Nicholas Payton, Sean Jones and other notables. Now he is stepping out as a leader, when possible. If his 2018 recording Cornerstone is any indication, the future is bright. It's filled with funky influences, sleek and slick jazz and bits and pieces of other influences that have affected Funn over the years. The compositions are strong and the execution is exceptional.

Funn's father has been a music teacher in the Baltimore city public school system for some 40 years and was a touring musician as well. He plays mostly trombone, but also some bass. "So I've been hearing jazz since the beginning of my time," says the Washington, D.C.-based Funn. "There are early pictures of me in one of those baby backpacks, I'm on his back at one of his gigs."

He started on trumpet at about the age of 4, walking in the footsteps of an older brother who also played trumpet. It was expected he would play, but as he grew a little older, he came to the realization that not everyone has to play an instrument. It became a bit of a drag.

"I wasn't into it so much, growing up. My brother was so much better than me," he says. "I was like, 'I hate this.' But when I got to high school and picked up the bass, I fell in love with it. It was something new. I wasn't chasing my brother anymore. It helped me to understand what is going on in a jazz quartet."

Soon, "I was obsessed. I would come home from school, practice until dinner time, then practice until I went to sleep," Funn says. As he grew on the instrument, he listened to Ray Brown, Charles Mingus, Christian McBride, Paul Chambers, Ron Carter and Oscar Pettiford.

"A good friend of my dad's was an instructor at my high school. I was coming from middle school where I was playing the trumpet," he recalls. "My dad never said it, but it was made pretty clear to me that if I was going to live in his house, I was going to be in the school jazz band. When I got to high school, there were no trumpet chairs open. The only chair that was open was the bass. My dad's friend really needed a bassist. My dad was like, 'Put Kris on bass.' So he put me on bass. Luckily it worked out."

He was quickly thrown into the professional fire. He had only been playing the upright for about a month, when a friend of his father's needed a bassist for a gig.

"My dad always had the confidence to throw me into an situation... They said, 'Do you think Kris can do it?' My dad said, 'Yeah. He can handle it.' There's no way I should have been on this gig. I remember riding for two hours to play a wedding. I didn't destroy the gig. But it helped me realize the role of the bass. By then I was just playing the root of the chords on every song. The fact they had no serious issue with that, I was like, 'OK. I know my job here.' I learned early what I was supposed to be doing."

Eventually, as a high school student, he was playing gigs all over Baltimore "in places I was probably too young to play in. I played with Warren Wolf, the vibraphonist from Baltimore. We would play a lot in bands around town all through high school."

After high school, Funn was still obsessed with the bass and had an inkling he would go to New York City and make his way as a musician. His parents had other ideas—college. He was off to Howard University in nearby Washington, D.C. "I didn't have a plan. In my brain, I didn't want to go to college to study music. I got to college on an educational scholarship. I felt that was another side of the brain. I didn't want to waste a free education on music when I got my dad in the house. I'd already been a music major."

The first couple months "I went through the motions of being a music major. But I had a friend who was doing computers. It intrigued me, so I decided to major in computer science, all the while taking jazz improv and playing in jazz band," says Funn. "Back then D.C. was amazing. I had a steady gig four nights a week. I was taking 20 credits. I would go to school all day and play jazz all night. Doing homework on the breaks. It was intense back then. This was around 1999 or 2000."

Funn performed in the Howard University Jazz Ensemble and graduated with an honors degree in computer science. Upon graduation, he was at a bit of a crossroads. But his path to music was settled soon—in a big way.

"When I graduated from school, I was a little fatigued playing jazz. I was playing almost every night. I finished school and had this sense of, 'What is the next step?' I thought I was going to actually stop playing. I started going on job interviews," the bassist says. "A good friend of mine, John Lamkin, a drummer, was playing with Kenny Garrett at the time. He called me one day while I was sitting in despair. I hadn't touched my instrument in about a week. He's like, 'Are you working next Saturday?" I told him, 'I don't think I can make that.' He said, 'OK. Because I have a gig with Kenny Garrett, but you can't make it.' And he just hangs up. So I grabbed the phone and called him back and told him I could do it.

"So he literally called Kenny Garret on three-way and I'm sitting there shaking. I remember Kenny asking me, 'You got all my music, right?' And I lied and said, 'Yeah, I got all your albums.' I didn't have any of them. He's like, 'Can you come to by house tomorrow?' 'Yeah, I can do it.' I got off the phone, called all my friends. I remember driving around all night collecting Kenny Garrett music. Back then somebody couldn't shoot me a YouTube link or an MP3. I had to go pick up the albums from my friends. I learned all this music and the next night rehearsed with him. About a month later I was on tour with him. I played with him for about four years."

Of the other musical relationships, one of the moist important became Christian Scott.

"Christian came to town... John [Lamkin] was on the gig. He played with a local band. I lucked out. He was looking for a bassist. I didn't realize it. After the gig, he asked me to do some dates with him. I've been playing with Christian for 10 or 11 years now. I've learned more from Christian on the bandstand than anybody else."

"I always call myself, 'I'm your favorite bassist's stunt double,'" jokes Funn. "I've done a couple tours filling in. Now I do a lot of work with Joey Alexander. I've been subbing for Reuben Rogers. I've done stuff with Kamasi Washington. I've known him for forever too. Warren Wolf. Benny Golson. I've done a couple tours with Nicholas Payton. I've done a couple tours with Keyon Harrold."

Funn says he is happy "Beyond my wildest dreams" with Cornerstone.

"I had been writing on and off for a while, but I was never really happy with what I was writing. I think I was writing to impress other musicians. But when I wanted to really get down to it, I was like, 'I want to make music for my nine-year-old self.' I want to make accessible music that tells my story," he says.

He was involved with a grassroots society called Capital Bop in D.C. They put on shows once a month, called the Jazz Loft. "And these guys would just pick an artist locally. You could lead a band, whatever you wanted to do. They would do all the promotion. 'Play whatever you want. We don't even care. We'll promote it and put some faces in front of you.' They kept nagging me to do it," says Funn. "I sat down and wrote some tunes. Those first tunes were literally for just bass and drums. I was trying to be adventurous. I chickened out at the last minute. I thought no one wanted to sit through this. But then I added a guitar and it just clicked. They gave me the first opportunity to do it. It was an incredible success. It pushed me to finish elaborating on that sound.

"Also, my wife is an actress. She has had a lot of success telling her story. She does a lot of one-woman shows. I got inspiration from that to tell my stories. Everybody has a story and everybody can relate. So I put that together and decided to tell my story through my art."

He explains some of the influences on the recording. "When I grew up in the '80s I was listening to hip-hop. Even after I picked up the bass. That's the other big influence. But most of the influence is growing up on that block in Baltimore. A lot of the song stories are based on those experiences.

Visceral" is a blues, the first thing his father taught him on the bass. "Boombox" is inspired by the mid-1980s. A DJ in Funn's neighborhood had a huge radio and the sounds that burst out of it mesmerized the youngster. "PIF" (Paige In Full) is a ballad inspired by his now wife, who was from his neighborhood. They eventually met on a playground. The ballad "loops uneven like a hip-hop sample... then becomes one," says Funn.

"I picked certain musicians to get that influence in there. The drummer on a couple tracks, John [Lamkin], is a DJ and brings a lot of hip-hop on top of the jazz. The guitarist [John Lee] brings a lot of the rock and jazz fusion to it. The pianist [Allyn Johnson] on one track brings gospel to it. I wanted to bring influences from everywhere that I remember hearing as a child. Everything I listened to in my lifetime, there's a tinge of influence coming from all directions."

He hopes to be doing music from Cornerstore with his own band and has done some gigs here and there. He wants it to become more a part of his career, but "the biggest hurdle I have to getting my own thing is I'm working so much with everybody else. That's a lot less stressful than running your own thing," he says with a chuckle. "All in due time."

And he's still absorbed by the bass.
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