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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.

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