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Tom Kennedy: In A New York Minute

Jim Worsley By

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By the time I was two or three, I had a little ukulele and was picking out bass lines on Beatles songs.
Riding high on the low end since arriving in New York City in 1984, premier jazz and fusion bassist Tom Kennedy has shared his groove and innate musicality all over the world. He has shared the stage and recording studio with a long list of varied and talented artists. Names like Michael Brecker, Steve Gadd, Lee Ritenour, David Sanborn, Freddie Hubbard, Dave Weckl, Joe Sample, and Nat Adderley merely scratch the surface of Kennedy's association with outstanding musicians. Signature deep grooves are at the heart of his inspired playing style. At the top of his game, Kennedy is now a prominent world-class bassist.

Kennedy talked to All About Jazz about the past, present, and future of his career. He takes us on an enjoyable trip down memory lane, growing up in a suburb of St. Louis and a journey that includes playing with jazz elites such as Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Stitt as a teenager.

All About Jazz: Tom, you have been a sought-after sideman and session player for many years. I'd like to start with your own records as a leader. I believe you have five so far, the most recent being Points Of View (Self Released, 2017) and Just Play! (Capri Records, 2013). The latter seems to best describe the feel of its cast of great musicians, with whom you already have an established musical connection and were just going for it.

Tom Kennedy: Well, you just hit the nail on the head. Just before the session, I was thinking about all the logistics, making sure things were set up correctly, and getting all the guys there so that we could just play. The name just kind of happened and we stuck with it. I picked a lot of material that we had played before and were very familiar with. I knew when Mike Stern, Renee Rosnes, and George Garzone got together that they would really come together and it would just be magic. We were all able to relax. It had the sense of just going on a fun gig.

AAJ: What goes into the process of song selections? Was it in consideration of the artists involved?

TK: I didn't want it to be a strain on anyone. Again, to just be able to relax and go for it. I picked a lot of songs that I was familiar with and that I just like. I picked a lot of things that we used to listen to back in St. Louis. Back then, [my brother] Ray and I were the youngest players and it was just a magical time. These are songs that I am close to.

AAJ: An opportunity to put your own spin on them.

TK: That's right. A new spin from not only myself but from the entire cast of great musicians. You have a sense of what it is going to be, but at the same time you have no idea what it is going to be. You can never anticipate what someone is going to do four or eight bars down the line, so there is anticipation of the unexpected. It is a really special feel.

AAJ: Would it be accurate to say that these are studio albums with that live vibe?

TK: Absolutely. We wanted to play everything live. We did it in an old studio called Nola in New York City, a well-known club with a lot of history. Nat "King" Cole recorded there. Frank Sinatra did some stuff there.

AAJ: Recording where Nat King Cole recorded. How cool is that?

TK: Right, exactly. Charlie Parker was out there. Unfortunately, it closed down after one other session. It became a sky lobby for a big monstrosity that they built next door. "That's progress," as they say.

We did Just Play! in one day. We might have had two takes on each thing, but I went with the first take on every song. I never used any of the second takes.

AAJ: How did When Light & Shadows Meet (Go East Music Entertainment, 2018), your record with Chinese pianist Luo Ning, come about?

TK: Dave Weckl called me about that project while we were on a West Coast tour. Ning contacted him about playing on his record and asked about a bassist. Dave and I have played together forever, so he always thinks of me and I always think of him.

AAJ: The depth of the record becomes more and more apparent with each listen, perhaps most notably in the bass lines. Did you find that its complexities made this an interesting project to work on?

TK: Definitely. Ning's music is very interesting. I remember being in the studio and there were some preconceived ideas about what he wanted, but it was great because he was open as well. He really wanted us to show our own personalities and do our own thing. It was a very pleasant project. I recall some hard days because some of the stuff was kind of challenging. It was definitely a lot of fun because I am up for challenges. I love challenges—especially in a live studio situation—when they are unsure of exactly how they want things to go. There is an arrangement but, as I said, it was open for interpretation. Our personalities were really shining on that project. He was great to work with and very open to whatever we wanted to do.

AAJ: Once again, the preeminent rhythm section with you and Dave Weckl onboard. I know it has been a very long time, but just how long have you and Weckl been playing together? How many records do you think the two of you have played on together?

TK: I think we have done thirty or forty projects over the years. Dave was so heavily into the Chick Corea thing for several years and touring a lot that I didn't see him much during that time. If not for that time, I'm sure we would have done even more. We met at a Stan Kenton music camp in Springfield, Missouri in 1975.

AAJ: That's just a few years ago.

TK: It was funny because my brother...I don't know how much you know about my brother, or if you are familiar with him.

AAJ: Of course. Ray Kennedy was a very accomplished jazz pianist.

TK: Ray was incredible and played with John Pizzarelli for many years. He and I went to the camp as kids. We were looking around and trying to play with as many kids as we could. We were in rehearsal bands most of the day but after that always looking for other kids to play with. Dave was at one of the jam sessions and the three of us got a chance to play together. Immediately it was, "Oh man this is great!" But you always found someone who could really play, and that you got along with, but who lived in another state. As it turned out, Dave lived only about fifteen miles from us. We became a trio kind of quickly. Dave used to bring his drums over to my parents' house. We would set up in the living room and just go nuts.

AAJ: Finding a kindred musical spirit so early in life had to be special .

TK: Yes, that was the thing. It was uncommon, especially at our age. There were many great players at the time that were older. We were just kids in our mid-teens trying to get started and play as much as we could. Dave and I are only six months apart in age.

It happened naturally. When we played together it was the most natural thing of all. The chemistry was there, and it was just so easy to play. We were dumbfounded, really, even at that age, at how it came together. It was a defining moment. Finding a drummer was always hard enough anyway. It was difficult to find someone into jazz who could play at our level at the time.

AAJ: Maybe some rock drummers?

TK: That's it. People would ask if we listened to rock growing up, if we were Zeppelin heads, and no, we weren't. We were listening to Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie, and Bill Evans. That is how Ray and I came up. We loved big bands as well and Dave loved big bands too. That's one of the ways we really connected. It's funny: there are these Buddy Rich things on YouTube now and I will send them to Dave, not knowing whether he has seen them or not. So far, he has seen everything I have sent him, but it's fun because I feel like we are back to being kids again. We still have that kind of energy together.

AAJ: You also did a couple of shows recently with Dennis Chambers and Leni Stern in Baltimore. I would love to have been a fly on the wall for those performances. How were those received?

TK: Well it was great. It was a small club, An die Musik LIVE, in Baltimore that has really been promoting jazz. It's a small community place that is bringing in some major people. We had well educated jazz crowds there to hear music. It was a cool old room in a cool old building. It might have been a library at one time. They had chairs but no tables. Definitely a listening place. People were really into the best place to sit and really listen. There were quite a few musicians in the crowd as well.

AAJ: I know you have played with Chambers quite a bit. How did you enjoy playing with Leni Stern?

TK: She is wonderful. Her music is wonderful. To me, that's the thing. It was a different kind of scene because we were mostly playing Leni's music. I hadn't really played it before. I had heard it for years, but this was the first time we had ever played a gig together. When the music is beautiful, and the person is beautiful, then it's going to be a great experience. It can sometimes be one or the other. I have played with fabulous musicians who are, let's say, not nice people. And vice-versa. But Leni is the whole package. She is the real deal. She has a real musical sensitivity. We also had the surprise of Mike Stern coming down and sitting in. He was kind of in the background, as much as Mike can be in the background [laughs]. He was standing behind Leni playing rhythm guitar. Then we ended up playing some of his music as well.

Leni and Mike have this unbelievable love for each other. There is such support. After everything they have been through over the years, they just want to be together. They want to share things, and it is really beautiful. I kept looking over at them and thinking how sweet it was to see them both on stage together. They were both rocking out and it's just a wonderful feeling. Then DC [Dennis Chambers] is there playing drums and everyone is wailing and having a good time. I thought "These really are the times of your life."

AAJ: Hopefully the opportunity to play more shows together will present itself.

TK: We could easily do it. We had an absolute ball together. I have played with the best guitarists in the world, with the best drummers in the world, and with the best pianists in the world, and I never take that for granted. When I am up there in the middle of it, with all this wonderful stuff wafting around me, it is such a wonderful feeling. Then I look at the audience and see how into it they are and have that communication with them. If they're not there, we're not there. It doesn't happen without them. They create the energy. It's great to have that kind of positive energy, with all the other stuff going on in the world.

AAJ: It sure is something positive to plug into. I have had the pleasure of seeing and hearing you play with the incomparable Mike Stern many times. Last month I saw the quartet twice in a ten-day period, first at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix and then at the Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood. I mention the time frame because it is notable how songs sound so different within it. Is the approach to keep it fresh by implementing some changes in advance, or is it all improvisation?

TK: It's totally in the moment. I try to go in with no preconception. We know the music backwards and forwards. We have played it a lot together. I make it my job to learn any new music as quickly as I can, so that I can get away from the sheet and just play. Then I can look at it from as many different angles as I can. When we get out on stage, it's just the now.

AAJ: That interplay, camaraderie, and true enjoyment of playing is very much a part of, and transcends, the listening experience.

TK: With that much focus—and we are all really locked in—we are also able to have fun with it. That's why the amazing grooves happen: the concentration lends itself to some great moments. You dig in and the audience is responsive, which makes you want to dig in even harder.

AAJ: Going back to where it all started, you mentioned your talented older brother, Ray. What was it like growing up in a musical family?

TK: I was so fortunate from the time I was a little kid. My father and mother owned a music store in a St. Louis suburb called Maplewood. They started the music store back in the '40s. They were planted in Maplewood for several years before the three of us kids came along. I am the youngest of three. My sister is five years older than me. From the time we were little we would be at the store listening to records and playing instruments. My father was so proud to find out that we all had perfect pitch, which was pretty extraordinary. So, by the time I was two or three years old, I had a little ukulele and was trying to pick out the bass lines on The Beatles records. I had a record player that you could put on neutral speed and disengage the motor. Then I would turn it to the right pitch manually. I would put my finger on the record and turn it to the right pitch. That's when my father got suspicious that we had some pretty good ears.

AAJ: That's really incredible. What led you to the upright bass?

TK: For us, it was just natural. We just gravitated to it. Music found us. We weren't really looking for it. It kind of pursued us. I played trumpet for about a year. My brother played trumpet. We ended up playing trumpet all through high school. Ray was in middle school at the time and they didn't have a double bassist in the orchestra. He was asked to play because he was so musical that they knew he would pick it up. The idea was for him to take it home for a couple of weeks, learn the parts, and play them with the orchestra. He brought an upright bass home to practice. That was the first time I ever saw it. It was laying on the floor in the music room and I went over and pulled a string. I immediately just fell in love with it. Within a few days Ray and I were starting to figure out how to play tunes together. He had just started playing the piano and was really into Oscar Peterson. Ray was twelve and I was nine. We had been dabbling with other instruments, but when I got the bass it really took off. Ray went back to the orchestra teacher and told him that he wasn't going to be able to play bass because his brother stole it from him. I don't think you are going to get that bass back! I ended up playing it like four or five hours a day.

AAJ: That seems to have worked out pretty well. Was your father a musician?

TK: My dad was a trumpet player. He had kind of a small big band and traveled around the Midwest. He was a personality as well. He would do a little bit of singing and played a lot of Louis Armstrong.

AAJ: That's the image that just popped in to my head.

TK: He had that same kind of appeal and people liked him. He did that for years, and then at one point his mom mentioned that she thought it would be smart to open a music store. I think she was trying to get him to settle down and get into something like that. I don't think there was much security in what he was doing. So that's when the store got started. When we were old enough to stock shelves or tune a guitar, we started working there as well. The store kind of saved my life. I had a very late adolescence and was kind of a troublemaker. I was better off working at the store than being on my own, so the store saved me in a lot of ways.

AAJ: Somewhere in there, you started a band together.

TK: What happened was that, before we even met Dave, we were playing with some other kids. We found a little drummer that just basically played brushes on the snare drum. He was good and we ended up playing a lot. We were playing all the time at little parties and stuff. The funny story is that one day my dad gets a call from the local musicians' union. They said "We need to talk to you about the boys. We keep hearing their names and know that they are playing around a bit. We think that they need to join the union so that they will be protected." Mind you, I was twelve at this point. They set up a 2:00 PM meeting on a Saturday for us to bring our instruments and audition for the union. We started playing, and pretty soon we see people coming in with paper cups and paper plates with cake on them. They had punch and coffee. It turns out that they just wanted to hear us play.

AAJ: They just wanted a free band for their office party.

TK: That's exactly right. It was hilarious. They told my mom later that we were already in but, yes, they thought they would get a little free concert out of it.

AAJ: They got one great deal that day.

TK: They sure did. Looking back, I think they might owe me fifty bucks. [laughing throughout] So now we had the union on our side, and they would recommend us for gigs. Here we are, just kids, and we started playing with Dizzy Gillespie, James Moody, Sonny Stitt, Herb Ellis, Barney Kessel, and guys like that.

AAJ: These cats must have fallen over when they walked in and saw a group of kids as their back up band.

TK: Yeah, pretty much. I remember Sonny Stitt looking at us and kicking into "Cherokee" at breakneck speed. It was kind of sink or swim. After the first tune he was smiling and asking if we knew "April In Paris" and some other tunes. We ended up playing with him for about ten days. This is back when gigs were more like two weeks. That is now a thing of the past.

AAJ: That had to be a great learning experience.

TK: Oh, it was wonderful. We just caught the tail end of that. What an education, to be able to play with all those guys that early in life. You learn a lot of the subtleties not just about the music, but about personalities and all that. We knew we had hit the big time when they would call us back. They would come to town again and call us. We knew we were doing something right.

AAJ: What can you tell us about your late brother? [Ray Kennedy passed away in 2015 due to complications with multiple sclerosis.]

TK: There was nobody in music that I respected more than my brother. He was the most incredible musician that I have ever met to this day. The thing about Ray, in a general sense, was that he was a fan of music. He was always learning and never had the sense that he was better than the situation that he was in. To give you an idea, Ray was playing "A Night in Tunisia" with Dizzy Gillespie, and he was ready to play his solo when Dizzy—as, of course, he generally did—went up for a high note. As soon as that happened, Ray just froze. He sat out about a chorus because he just was in awe of the moment. It struck him that he was actually onstage playing with the great Dizzy Gillespie. For me, that moment really encompasses Ray's love and appreciation of it all. He was like an encyclopedia of jazz. He was a humble guy who just happened to be an immensely talented musician.

AAJ: What bass players or other musicians did you listen to growing up? Who would you consider to be influences?

TK: I referenced Oscar Peterson earlier, so Ray Brown was huge. Jerry Cherry was a St. Louis bassist that was also my mentor. The young drummer on the brushes I mentioned before was Jerry's son. Jerry had thousand of albums and we listened to a lot of music. He was a great teacher. But again, Ray Brown was the big influence on me. During that time, I heard Ron Carter, Leroy Vinnegar, and Eddie Gomez. Overall, it opened up when I heard Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Bill Evans. That led to Dave Liebman and Steve Grossman and other modern players. It happened pretty quickly starting with Oscar Peterson. Within two or three years we heard Chick Corea. Light as A Feather (Polydor Records, 1973) came out and Stanley Clarke just blew me away. I had just never heard an upright played that way before. We were really into horn players and along came Brecker Brothers. The first time I ever heard Michael Brecker play I was like, "Whoa. Now, this is where it's going. This is the new thing." We were still very young and just absorbing all of this stuff. There were endless possibilities. We got in on the ground floor.

AAJ: You came along at just the right time.

TK: We really did. All that stuff was just starting to blossom and so were we. Then we got into Herbie Hancock and I wanted to do that whole Paul Jackson thing on the bass. We were just hungry for it.

AAJ: When did the electric bass enter the picture?

TK: About that time, when we started getting in to Herbie and Miles Davis's electric stuff. I remember one night, late at the music store, my dad and I were just getting ready to close up for the night. A guy walked in and asked if he could play an electric bass. He picked up an electric bass and started funking on it. He was slappin' it and funkin' with it. That was my first real interest in the instrument. I realized that you could do other things with it. It wasn't just a small upright. I got a good electric bass and started taking that seriously. It was a bit of an alter ego thing though. I was still mostly into the upright and playing straight-ahead jazz.

AAJ: We talked about how many records you have done with Weckl. Any idea how many you have been a part of overall?

TK: Probably a couple of hundred. Maybe more like three hundred. I've done a lot of projects Sometimes it is just on one tune, and sometimes it's the full record. People send me stuff all the time. I love doing that. In fact, when we first started talking about the record you brought up earlier, I had completely forgotten about it. It's funny but I will be talking with somebody and they will ask "Remember that recording you did with so and so?"

AAJ: And your response is, "I do now."

TK: Exactly. Then it's like, "Thanks for reminding me. I had forgotten all about that one." But that's cool.

AAJ: One of my favorite records that you play on is Don Grolnick's Hearts and Numbers (Hip Pocket Records, 1989), with Peter Erskine and Michael Brecker. Do you have any personal favorites?

TK: That one, interestingly, is one that totally stands out. That was a game changer for me. I had just moved to New York to pursue a music career and I called Peter Erskine to let him know I was in town. I should backtrack to tell you that I have known Peter ever since the Stan Kenton band camp days when I was kid. Peter was Kenton's drummer in those days. Most of the nice hotels in St. Louis back then had nice quality pianos in the lobby. When Peter would come to town, he would call my brother and me and we would go jam in the hotel lobby. We did that quite a bit. I called Peter when I got to New York and he got me into an audition right away.

Steps Ahead had already auditioned bass players and had somebody they were ready to go with, but Peter thought I would be a good fit and set up an audition for me. Modern Times (Rhino/Warner Bros., 1984) was the new record out at the time. I needed to learn a few of those tunes quickly. I already knew the older stuff. I showed up at the studio and in walks Michael Brecker, Mike Mainieri, Peter Erskine, and Warren Bernhardt. I'm just standing there looking at Brecker like, "Oh my God." This was 1984 and I had been listening to him play for over ten years. We played "Pools" first.

AAJ: What a great tune.

TK: Oh, it sure is. I had played that song many times but, wow, it was amazing playing it with these guys. Just incredible. All of a sudden it had that feel just like on the record. The next thing I know, everybody is smiling, having a good time, and getting more intense. Michael goes into his sixteenth-note solo and everyone is bopping their heads. We played two or three other tunes, and at the end it was like "What do we do now?" I shook hands with all the guys and took off.

AAJ: Great story. What's happened next?

TK: The next morning the phone rings and Peter says, "Welcome to Steps Ahead." I was off and running and it was only my fifth day in New York. Then I heard from Weckl. He was starting to work with Bill Connors on a new fusion album and needed an upgrade on the bass. He told me I should come over and play with him. I learned all his music as quickly as possible. Like I said, I was hungry and really trying to get some things going. A few days later Bill says, "Man, do you want to do this thing? Do you want to be part of the trio?" Next thing I know we were rehearsing for Bill's Step It (Pathfinder Records, 1985). Then Tania Maria called me about two weeks later. It was really something. Everything hit really fast. Tying all this back to Hearts and Numbers, Grolnick asked Peter who his new bassist was. After learning it was me, Grolnick wanted me to come in and record the last tune on that record. I had played with Grolnick for about six months in St. Louis when he was in town for a clinic that I was working at. So, it is just amazing how it all happened and came together. That was my introduction to the New York life.

AAJ: And here we are in 2019. What's in store for this year?

TK: I will be doing some more tours. Mike and I have dates in Europe in April and it looks like we will be going to China in May. I also want to do another record this year. I am working on a new recording. What it is going to be is yet unknown. I want this to be more of a group record. Maybe four or five people. Possibly a guest or two. But I want it to be more of a group rather than a large cast of guests. Don't get me wrong, I really enjoyed doing that, but I just want to do something a little different. I am hoping to do something around late summer or maybe even by mid-summer, with a couple of originals and some different things with arrangements. We shall see. Looking forward to it all.
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