Steve Cardenas: From K.C. to N.Y.C.

Matthew Warnock By

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Kansas City has had a long and storied place in jazz history. From Count Basie, to Charlie Parker and Lester Young, some of the best and brightest in the genre have either been raised or cut their teeth in K.C. While there seems to be an historical tinge to the city whenever its contribution to jazz is concerned, the Paris of the Plains still produces many top-notch instrumentalist and vocalists from its clubs, high schools and universities. With such a storied past, and love of all things jazz, it's no wonder that players like Danny Embry, Karrin Allyson and guitarist Steve Cardenas continue to grow out of the city's musical soil.

Cardenas' playing mixes the lyrical simplicity of his Midwestern roots with the hustle and bustle of the New York scene, the city he now calls home. Having made a name for himself as the consummate sideman, sharing the stage with Marc Johnson, John Patitucci, Charlie Haden, Norah Jones and Paul Motian, to name a just few, Cardenas has also released three excellent albums under his own name, including 2010's West of Middle (Sunnyside). Though his solo releases tend to be separated by a number of years due to his busy touring and recording schedule, they are definitely worth the wait. Portraying a tonal maturity and love for sonic diversity, Cardenas' albums criss-cross musical genres while remaining firmly set under the umbrella of modern jazz.

Though many of today's up and coming players are drawn to bigger cities like Chicago and New York, with players such as Cardenas carrying the flag, the jazz tradition in Kansas City will remain strong for years to come.

All About Jazz: You're just getting back from Moscow, how was the trip?

Steve Cardenas: It was great, but going over there in the space of less than seventy-two hours was tough, but it was still worth it.

AAJ: Not much time for sightseeing.

SC: No, but actually we did have some time because of the overnight flight. We got in the next day and didn't have to play until that night, so we were able to walk over to Red Square and check out some of what the city had to offer.

AAJ: How do you find the audiences over there and they're reaction to modern jazz?

SC: I didn't notice anything vastly different from the States. They seemed appreciative of the music and seemed to enjoy it. It's hard to compare audiences in different countries like that, especially since things are often different from city to city, let alone country to country.

AAJ: You seem to have a very open approach to the harmony in your writing and performing, which is noticeable on West of Middle. How would you describe your approach to harmony and texture from a compositional standpoint?

SC: It's not necessarily a conscious decision. Composition has always been for me something that I just let happen. I never say "I'm going to write this or in that manner." Compositions just sort of happen. They appear rather suddenly so I'm never thinking that I'm not going to write a two-five, or that I'm going to only use modern voicings or whatever. I love standards, from a compositional and improvisational standpoint. There's a lot of music that I like to play and I don't differentiate things. I know people view things in certain categories, but I just label things as either I like it or I don't.

When I'm writing, I write on guitar. I don't really play piano so much, and things more or less happen in certain ways. It's not premeditated, but when I'm working on a tune I can get this feeling that the tune is going somewhere. Or I might find an idea that I like and can't really seem to place it in anything I'm writing at the moment, so I shelve it for later. Every situation is different. Sometimes I'll write the bulk of something and then finish it a year down the road. I think this is similar to how all writers work, whether they write with music or with words, it seems to be how things work out for composers and writers.

AAJ: You a very lyrical and emotional writer, which gives your music a level of accessibility that one might not expect from modern jazz. Is that how you hear music, or did you consciously set out to write in a style that would appeal to people who like all different styles of music, not just jazz?

SC: Again, I don't have any conscious thoughts about that stuff. When I'm playing I'm always trying to think about what's best for the song at that particular moment. My favorite players all seemed to approach music that way and I don't think anyone that I know of consciously thinks of doing something more complex or whatever. I don't think that would serve the music in any capacity.

When you think of guys that do play in a complex style, guys like John Coltrane or Michael Brecker, that's how they're hearing the music, and they're very emotional players. Coltrane is one of the most soulful players I've ever heard, so I don't really believe that guys who play more technical have less emotion in their playing. Or the opposite, that guys who play tastefully have to play less notes. We're all playing what we hear and we've all got something to say, and that's that [laughs].


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