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Scott Kinsey: On speaking Luniwaz with an accent

Friedrich Kunzmann By

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I feel that music needs to be more than just notes on a page and musicians playing them, right? That alone is boring. There’s got to be something else... I love the idea of this mysterious and intangible element.
Scott Kinsey belongs among the most influential keyboard players of the past decades and seems capable of adapting to any style of music. Unlike those who came before him, Kinsey was born into the golden era of keyboards and synthesizers, when visionaries such as Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock had already begun to explore the vast possibilities these instruments provided. The biggest idol and influence for Kinsey however was and remains Weather Report's Joe Zawinul. At the beginning of the twentieth century Kinsey was lucky enough to meet the late pianist/composer and subsequently form a long and lasting friendship with him.

Today Kinsey is the main interpreter of Zawinul's music and carries his spirit forward in a variety of different projects—having worked as the musical director of the Zawinul Legacy Band being among the most prominent examples of his commitment to Zawinul's musical heritage. Kinsey's newest outing however represents his most immediate dedication to his hero and friend and finds him reshaping a variety of Zawinul compositions and putting his own spin on them. In other words, We Speak Luniwaz sees the student speaking his master's language with his own personal dialect. In the wake of the album's release, Scott Kinsey took some time out of his busy schedule to have a chat with me in Vienna, Austria. From a profound look at his friendship with Joe Zawinul to the current album and upcoming projects, Kinsey spoke candidly and kindly and proves eager to get more music out there.

All About Jazz: What can you tell us about We Speak Luniwaz? The motivation behind the album and how the project came about?

Scott Kinsey: In a way the album is supposed to be a kind of thank you note to Joe [Zawinul]. I think about him all the time because he meant a lot to me and he was very good to me. I wanted to do something that documented my admiration for him but also our friendship. An impetus for this project was my being the musical director for the official Zawinul Legacy Band, which Joe's son Tony Zawinul had started. So some of these tunes were songs that we'd played with the Legacy Band. After that band's activity faded, I continued to want to use the material we had played and rehearsed, to make something finished out of it and get it out there as a special kind of release.

AAJ: Are the rumours true, that you'd met Joe Zawinul over a Christmas tree?

SK: Funny enough, yeah (laughs)! It's a bizarre thing really. Originally, I thought that Scott Henderson, my colleague from Tribal Tech would introduce me but somehow that never happened. Then out of the blue I meet Jim Goetsch at a lighting store which is close to my place. He tells me he knows Joe and does his Christmas lights on an outdoor tree every year. Next thing I know he invites me to help him out and I'm standing on top of a ladder with Joe at the bottom. Such a freaky thing! After decorating the tree, I was thinking about what I could say to him, because I didn't want the encounter to end there of course. So I just asked him about a song on his record called Lost Tribes and he started explaining to me how he had used this Digitech VHM5 Vocalist to get a certain effect. He said: "Let me show you," invited me in, hooked it up and just showed me all sorts of stuff. That was mind blowing!

AAJ: Could you elaborate on your relationship with him from that point onwards? How was it to work so closely with him and exchange musical ideas?

SK: It grew slowly from that point. I would go over there with my friend Jim every once and a while until Joe would just call me and ask me if I wanted to come by. And sometimes he would say "Hey I got this new synthesizer. Do you wanna' come by and check it out? Let's program something!." So I'd of course come by, we'd fool around with it, maybe make a sound or two. And then other times he'd be working on a release and wanted to get my opinion on things. That was amazing because you wouldn't think that Joe would want or need someone else's opinion, but he really trusted me and my judgment and literally would say that sometimes. I remember him playing me songs from Midnight Jam and asked me which take from a live performance I liked more and saying "Hey man, you better be right, cause I'm trusting you!." Little by little it developed into that kind of relationship, working out music together or even just hanging out and listening to music together. He knew we were on the same page and so we were able to share these things. He also made me feel at home. We'd hang out in the studio and his wife Maxine would cook us all something, sometimes Joe would cook, and we'd have some Slivowitz after (laughs). It was a serious hang; it was incredible!

AAJ: With the title of the album you of course refer to Zawinul directly, Luniwaz not quite being a palindrome but Zawinul spelled backwards. What exactly do you mean when you talk about Zawinul's approach to music as a language? Could you outline what characterizes Zawinul's language to you?

SK: Joe just looked at things from another angle. There's this story he once told. People who follow Joe have probably heard it before but I'll try and retell it quickly. So back in the bebop days he was so super into that music and wanted to play that specific language of jazz and he became a great bebop pianist. One day he was outside this club talking to someone, I can't remember who, but the person said: "Hey, I listened to the radio the other day and I thought the pianist I heard was me, but it turned out to be you. So congrats, you sounded great!" And Joe of course just went blank and thought about what a disappointment that was. He said that from that moment on he never wanted to play bebop again. He wanted to go his own way, so he drew on his own background of folk music and music that was happening at home and brought that into jazz. That really became his signature. The way he made modal music was also very different and very much his own. I feel like he was writing songs in those early days that captured a kind of journey. He explained it to me and called it "experience." He'd write songs called that, titled "Experience in D-flat," Experience in something else etc. I've adapted that myself. We're wherever we are and we're taking this trip and may as well enjoy the view along the way. I love that concept. It's not like a song form following parts A-A-B-A or anything like that. For a while in Weather Report there were still typical song forms for sure, but as Joe progressed and got closer to the essence of what he really wanted to do it became this trip and songs represented environments or places. Records like Dialects (Columbia Records, 1986) really capture that. Rhythm became more important, sounds as well. Joe got more into the exotic nature of rhythms and tones. That fascinated me a lot about him too. I love the idea of synthesizers being the unknown factor. What could a synthesizer be? What instrument is it? I've never loved the idea of imitating strings or brass or whatever instrument, I prefer the mystical and unknown sound. That's where Joe and I really hit it off.

AAJ: So you're pretty much speaking your own dialect of his language?

SK: Exactly! I certainly learned a lot from him. He was the only one doing that when I was growing up, at least the only one I knew and heard. That shaped my thoughts a lot. At the same time, I never wanted to copy Joe at all. I maybe transcribed one or two solos of his when I was in high school or college but basically, I was studying other musicians too, just so I'd become kind of well-rounded. But that thing that he had really captured my imagination. I knew I wanted to go in that direction. His band and his music always had this little spark to it. He always was able to get the initial excitement recorded. That's another thing I admire and try to integrate into my approach. I mean, I've heard examples of this first hand, where Joe would sit down and improvise into an Atari computer and you would hear songs form from one initial idea to a complete piece almost instantly! You could almost hear the wheels turning and suddenly an entire piece would come out. Even pieces you know from a record, but what you hear is the original improvisation which would make it all the way to what you hear on the album. It was incredible, the guy was a genius.

AAJ: How did you go about making the selection of titles you'd record for this album?

SK: Some of them had been recorded early on, based on songs Tony Zawinul had in mind for the Legacy Band. Others were just songs I really wanted to do. There are so many songs in Joe's discography, it's really hard to choose. So some of this came from what we did with the Legacy Band. This is a really cool selection of songs but of course there are plenty of other songs I'd have loved to record as well. A ballad like "Dream Clock" or "Madagaskar" would have been really cool to do. There's a version of "Walk Tall" I arranged and I also play "Corner Pocket" live, but those songs didn't make it on to the record.

AAJ: He wrote so much great music, I'm sure it's very hard to choose and of course you can't cover all the ground.

SK: Absolutely. So, now I play some of those live that I didn't put on the record. I also wanted some of my originals on the record so I put "Running the Dara Down" and the title track "We Speak Luniwaz" on there as well. The title track I'd originally done years ago with Steve Tavaglione and Cyril Atef. For a long time I didn't know what to do with the tune but when this album formed I knew it was the perfect place to put it. The other original is inspired by the Dara Factor composition from the second Weather Report (Columbia, 1982)-titled album. I wanted to capture that very improvisational vibe of the original versions. You can't mess with the original versions by Weather Report, they're amazing. But I wanted something with the same feeling. That's what became "Running the Dara Down," which started as a group improvisation that I composed to after the fact. That's another way of doing things—Composing around a group improvisation, which is what I also did with the last two or three Tribal Tech records.

AAJ: That's something you've talked about before, especially in regard to Weather Report. The fact that you enjoy the concept of songs unfolding in an improvisational manner; performances and songs not being pre-arranged, but rather improvised and sounding different each night. You stick to that approach yourself?

SK: Yes, exactly. I always loved that. With Weather Report, sometimes a song would start and you wouldn't know what song it was. Because the environment was different every night and influenced the band. That's what kept the band so exciting and fun. You wanted to go hear them every time they played because you never knew what you were going to get. It was always going to be exciting and in the moment. I also try to do that, with Tribal Tech for example we sometimes would do group improvisations and then suddenly the idea would pop in your head that this could be a particular song. But you didn't start off with the intention of playing a song. I feel like Joe did that. He would play something and it would meld into a tune. One time I was hanging out with him and I'd mentioned "Night Passage" and he went on to play it for me, which was beautiful. But then he'd say "You can also play it like this" and he went on to just completely rearrange and recompose it on the spot and it sounded like a whole other song, but just as good as the original!

AAJ: So, if you'd record the songs on We Speak Luniwaz again today, they'd probably sound very different from what ended up on there now?

SK: They would, yes. Of course, I did a lot of deliberate arranging and reharmonizing myself though, which is a fixed part of these versions. It was important for me to incorporate my own way of thinking in there as much as tipping my hat to Joe.

AAJ: It's exciting to hear what you do with these songs. "Black Market" for instance sounds quite different from the original version, it's slower and has a different groove.

SK: Yeah, and I feel like it's totally related to what Joe would have got into, almost like actually visiting this little market. Another thing I did for this record was to research different versions of the songs. A friend of mine showed me a very early rehearsal of Joe writing "Black Market." He was playing it slow cause he was just working on it. I really liked that vibe, so that might be where I got the idea from. I found a lot of amazing bootlegs in various places. I've listened to about 50 different versions of "Port of Entry" at this point (laughs). They played it differently every single time, and I try to take little ideas from some of those live versions and see what happens.

AAJ: The samples heard on your interpretation of "Black Market" are the original samples from Weather Report but you apply them in a different way from the original?

SK: Yeah I got that stuff from Joe. He gave me a few of those sounds, like the kind of murmuring in there. There's also this double speed or high-pitched sound in "Badia" which I have a sample of, among others. Just a bunch of sounds Joe used that are really iconic.

AAJ: You just mentioned the idea of someone actually exploring this "Black Market" and that being an inspiration for how you interpret the music. The geographical and cultural aspects seem omnipresent for you as they were for Zawinul. His obviously human and holistic approach to music was always very prevalent—the album Dialects representing one of many intense explorations of that nature. The same goes for you? Do you think your understanding of that and in consequence your approach is similar to Zawinul's?

SK: I do. I love that concept. I remember one time he was discussing Dialects and talking about how he got inspiration for the songs on there. And he mentioned how the song "The Great Empire" was inspired by a trip to Asia. He was in Japan and China and just looked at how the people walked and captured that kind of rhythm and groove in that song. Wherever you go these things are very different. The way people move and interact. He was very in tune with that and wherever I try to go I try to be very aware of where I am as well. I feel that music needs to be more than just notes on a page and musicians playing them, right? That alone is boring. There's got to be something else... I love the idea of this mysterious and intangible element.

AAJ: With "Port of Entry" the record also features a Wayne Shorter tune. Why this specific composition?

SK: When I think about it there are several reasons really. For one thing, I've just always really liked the song and I also feel like it's a tune that can be done in a million different ways. Then I also wanted a tune that we could just kind of jam on. Cause there's not a whole lot of fixed material in there, so that it lets you go different places. Another thing is that I heard very interesting bootlegs of it, which gave me the idea to do a studio version of a song that never had a studio version. The version on Night Passage is strictly a live version. I know that they played it differently every time and it has this openness that lets you play around with all sorts of different motifs. Plus you've just got to do something of Wayne's when you're thinking about Joe or Weather Report.

AAJ: For most people, the names Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul go hand in hand.

SK: Yeah, they do. And Wayne is just an incredible composer and musician. One of my favorite musicians of all time actually. Also, I've never really heard anyone cover that song before, so that's another reason I wanted to do it.

AAJ: The core band features people you've played with a lot in the past years, with Katisse Buckingham on woodwinds, Hadrien Feraud on bass and Gergo Borlai playing the drums. Are they part of your running band at the moment?

SK: Well we also played together in the Legacy Band. You could call it an offshoot of one of my bands. I have many versions of my own group. Sometimes Hadrien will play bass and Gergö will play drums, other times Kirk Covington is on drums, as well as Gary Novak. Jimmy Earl plays bass with me too. So it's just a formation that is in constant motion.

AAJ Sometimes tool drummer Danny Carey joins your band on the drum stool as well?

SK: Yeah Danny is incredible. He usually makes an appearance on my more recent records, too, just like on this one. On "The Harvest" he plays the Simmons drums, which is pretty damn cool.

AAJ:You're all pretty much on the same page when it comes to your influences, especially Zawinul or Weather Report?

SK: Oh yeah! Hadrien of course grew up listening to Jaco Pastorius and probably memorized everything he's ever played. But he has his own thing going for him and never really tried to sound like Jaco. The one exception on this record of course is on "Port of Entry." He plays fretless bass and channels that Jaco kind of sound a little bit more. But we're never trying to copy anybody, believe me. And Joe even knew that too. When people compared us he told me "You know, I don't really think we sound alike at all!"(laughs).

AAJ: You definitely have your own register of keyboard sounds and your own characteristic tones and colors.

SK: Thank you, I think so too. In the last few years of his life I was programming for Joe and he loved it. He'd tell me "You know, I don't necessarily want to always have the same sounds as you, but even if we do share a couple of the same sounds we'll play them differently and we weill never sound the same." And yeah, that's really true.

AAJ: Could you speak about the guests on this record a little bit?

SK: Bobby Thomas Jr joins in on percussion. He's probably the only guy who played with every version of Joe's bands. He played with the Zawinul Syndicate, with Weather Report and was just pretty consistent with every incarnation Joe did. He was also part of the Legacy Band, which is how I got to know him. We'd done rehearsals out here for a gig and before that I had him come over and record. I'm thrilled to have him on the record. Jimmy Haslip from Yellowjackets joins on bass. I've been working on a lot of projects with him and really wanted to have him on the record.

AAJ: This is your debut for Whirlwind Recordings. What made you move to the label for this release?

SK: My manager, Mike Charlasch, went to the Jazzahead conference in Europe and was just checking out all sorts of labels when he came across Whirlwind Recordings and was very impressed with Michael Janisch, as am I now too. When he presented the idea of this record to Michael he was really into it and ended up loving the music we'd done so it turned out to be the perfect fit. So far, it's been great working with them. At this point I want to emphasize that Abstract Logics, who I'd worked with for a long time, is a great label as well, but it felt like it was time for a little change in order to bring some new excitement and enthusiasm into the picture.

While we're talking about that: there's also a really cool version of this record that we licensed in Japan through Impartmaint Inc., which features another original bonus track that features Meredith Salimbeni on vocals and Pedro Martins on guitar. The song's called "They All Know," cause, you know, everybody knows how badass Joe was (laughs)! That song's only on that release at this time.

AAJ: What does the touring schedule look like for this music?

SK: It's in the works! I'm going to play some of this music in Russia in February but we're looking to tour extensively this summer. I also have plenty of other projects in the oven, with more of my own original music. Being a keyboard player and doing Joe Zawinul can be Kind of risky to say the least, because I'm already going to be compared to Joe no matter what. But I did it anyway because this is a very personal matter and my way of saying thank you. So, there's a lot of cool music on the way after this. I'm working on a record with Meredith, who I'd just mentioned. And then there's an album coming out which we made for Karl Sterling who works in Parkinson's Disease research and therapy. He was a drummer in his former life, so he got a lot of different drummers together—Gary Novak and Peter Erskine to name two. Karl plays a little bit and Jimmy Haslip and I produced it, so we're on it as well. And then just a bunch of other great people, Meredith, Jeff Richman on guitar and more. This is coming out in February and it's called Dream. Beyond that I have other things in the works as well. They might be a little way off, but they're coming!

AAJ: And we're looking forward to it! Thank you so much for your time!

SK: Pleasure talking to you!

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