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Mike Keneally: Behind the Creative Mind

Matthew Warnock By

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Percussionist Marco Minnemann's Normalizer 2 series grew out of an interesting and challenging premise. The accomplished drummer recorded an hour-long improvisation and then submitted the same recording to other artists, including John Czajkowski, Phi Yaan-Zek, Trey Gunn and Alex Machacek, and asked them to compose accompanying music to pair with his improv. Though this approach to composition sounds difficult to say the least, the results have proven to be highly inventive and musically smooth, if one didn't read the liner notes they might not realize how these pieces were initially conceived. With such a successful run in the series so far, Minnemann recently approached guitarist Mike Keneally, who gladly took up the challenge, which would result in the 2010 album, Evidence of Humanity (Exowax).

Though he is probably most well-known for his guitar work with Frank Zappa and, most recently, Joe Satriani, Keneally is a talented multi-instrumentalist who brings a whirlwind of influences and melodic tastes to this project. Playing several guitars, bass, keyboards, percussion, wood flutes, voice and randomia, Keneally's take on the Normalizer series comes across as being a mix of preconceived composition and in the moment improvisation, which is quite the accomplishment given the compositional circumstances of the album. His playing is first rate and the music craftily composed, everything that would be expect from a project with Keneally's name on it.

In addition to the audio recording, the two-disc release of Keneally and Minnemann's Evidence of Humanity also includes a DVD with an interview with the two artists, as they discuss the project and the recording process, as well as a live duo improv. By providing the bonus interview and concert, the release provides the opportunity to get into the minds of each performer, as they worked their way through the project. Even understanding what went into releasing this album, most will be left scratching their heads in amazement at the concept, as well as the effort needed to make the recording as successful as it is.

All About Jazz: The album has a very interesting concept behind it. Who approached who to get the ball rolling?

Mike Keneally: It was Marco's concept entirely. He improvised the initial drum solo without necessarily having a specific end result in mind, but upon hearing it back he began to formulate the idea of making it available to different players to see what they might do with it. At one point Marco wanted to release a box set of all the different players' versions, but that idea proved unwieldy, so each of the players have released their own versions independently.

I was very glad to be asked me to work with him on this series. I thought it was a tremendously creative and playful idea. I've heard all of Marco's Normalizer 2 [releases], based on the same drum solo, and I've heard parts of John Czajkowski, Trey Gunn, Alex Machacek, Mario Brinkmann and Phi Yaan-Zek's versions. I've found it fascinating to compare how we all approached the same project in very different ways.

AAJ: Did you find the idea of composing to a pre-improvised drum track difficult or was it a welcomed challenge, or both?

MK: It was really not that difficult. I found Marco's playing to be so inspiring and evocative and just listening to what he did brought all sorts of music out of me. Executing all the orchestration and making everything sound nice obviously took some time, but the initial musical ideas for each section came very quickly and I intentionally didn't second-guess my instincts.

AAJ: How did you approach the initial steps in composing your part of the album?

MK: I chose not to listen to the entire drum part prior to starting recording; as I was working on Scambot 1 (Exowax, 2009) during the same time period. Since that album was very thought-out and detail-intensive, I welcomed the opportunity to take a very different approach with Evidence of Humanity. John Czajkowski was the recording engineer for my version.

For the initial step, I simply asked John to play me the first minute or so of the drum part. Then, I listened to it again and began to hear a guitar melody in my head, which I then recorded. Then I went back and devised orchestration with other instruments for just that very opening section.

This turned out to be the approach I took for the whole album. Step by step I would listen to a portion of drum solo, a musical idea would occur to me quickly and I'd record it and flesh it out with overdubs before moving on to the next section.

AAJ: How much improvisation was included in your part, and did you steer away from improvising too much because the drum track was already completely improvised?

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