Tom Kennedy - August 2005
For the past three decades, St. Louis' Tom Kennedy has been a consummate, first-call bassist in the world of instrumental-based music. Alongside his piano-playing brother, Ray, Kennedy started building his now prolific career around the St. Louis area at age nine on the acoustic upright bass by playing mainstream jazz music. By the time Kennedy graduated high school, he had already performed with veteran jazz artists such as Peter Erskine, David Sanborn, Eddie Harris, Nat Adderly, Freddie Hubbard, and Stan Kenton.
Ever since Kennedy was first introduced to the electric bass when he was seventeen, he has divided his time between both instruments. In the mid-1980's, Kennedy left St. Louis and relocated to New York where he became highly-regarded through performances in multiple groups on both instruments. Kennedy's exceptional bass skills were brought further accolades by recording with guitar great Bill Conners and touring with tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker in the world-renowned jazz group Steps Ahead. From then, Kennedy's performance and recording credits include Al Di Meola, Mike Stern, Herb Ellis, Frank Gambale, Ellis Marsalis, Vinnie Colaiuta, Lee Ritenour, Steve Gadd, Dizzy Gillespie, Tony MacAlpine, and Virgil Donati to name a few.
In 1997, Kennedy independently released Basses Loaded, his debut recording as a solo artist that was comprised of performances by his brother and Brazilian pianist Tania Maria on a collection of original compositions and standards from the jazz repertoire. He followed that showcase in 2002 with Bassics, his second project as a leader which featured an all-star group including Mundell Lowe on guitar and Joe Labarbera on drums.
While a teenager at band camp, Kennedy met fellow St. Louis resident, drummer Dave Weckl and forged a profound musical relationship which continues to this day. Kennedy has been a long-time, integral member of the Dave Weckl Band and has appeared on numerous projects with the virtuoso drummer including the latest Weckl Band recording, Multiplicity, which was released in July, 2005.
As a life-long component of the St. Louis music community, Kennedy has always returned to his roots regardless of where his musical endeavors have taken him abroad, and his most recent venture is a recording project titled Twice As Nice by the Tom Kennedy Quartet which performs a unique blend of classic jazz standards and contemporary jazz arrangements in and around the St. Louis vicinity.
Besides his busy performance schedule, Kennedy instructs beginner to advanced-level bassists in all styles of music both on the university level and through his international correspondence program which spans the globe from Europe to Asia and North to South America.
Being an active studio musician, Kennedy has firmly established himself as one of the most sought-after bass doublers in today's session scene. Utilizing his 96k digital, home recording studio along with his extensive recording expertise and experience, Kennedy produces customized bass tracks for "bass by mail" projects around the world.
Today, Kennedy plays and records extensively while maintaining a reputation amongst his colleagues as one of the truly finest bass players in contemporary instrumental music.
In the following interview, Kennedy chats with us about his latest recordings with his St. Louis-based quartet and the Dave Weckl Band, playing both acoustic upright and electric bass, teaching, and much more!
Who inspired your pursuit of music as a career?
I grew up in a family of musicians in St. Louis. My father had been a professional trumpet player for years and eventually opened a retail music business in which we all worked. He introduced us to so many things including big band music and jazz from the 1940's and 50's. I'm quite sure I was the only kid at Valley Elementary School that knew who Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were! My sister is a wonderful classical pianist, and my brother cut his teeth in jazz from the beginning. If you are familiar with any of John Pizzarelli's recordings of the past 10 or 11 years, you know Ray's playing. Ray, in fact, was the one that really gave me my first experience with the acoustic upright bass. He was in junior high school at the time and had just joined the school orchestra. Although he was a pianist, they needed other instrumentalists and one was a bassist so Ray brought a bass home one afternoon for practicing purposes. I will never forget the feeling I had when I saw it and even more when I plucked out the first three or four notes. I was hooked! It became obvious almost immediately that this was MY instrument, and as a result, two-thirds of the Ray Kennedy Jazz Trio was born. It wasn't long before we were playing many of the arrangements we were listening to on record including works from Oscar Peterson, Maynard Ferguson, Nat Cole, amongst others. We tried everything!
Were you influenced by anyone in particular as an up-and-coming bassist?
Well, this is where it got interesting! In a very short time, Ray and I were beginning to build a reputation around St. Louis. However, Ray had always envisioned the trio sound so we needed a drummer. One day at an orchestra practice, Ray was talking with a violinist who mentioned having a brother who played jazz drums. We, of course, jumped at the chance to give a listen to this "kid" named Steve who was actually a year younger than me. He ended up being a perfect fit with everything we were doing, and the trio was finally complete. What we didn't know was that his father was local bass legend, Jerry Cherry. Steve mentioned that his dad was playing somewhere in St. Louis that weekend, and we should go to listen. That performance was the determining factor in my decision to be a bass player! I couldn't believe how commanding the instrument could be along with the technical possibilities. We went almost every weekend to hear Jerry's trio as well as many musicians who came through St. Louis. Many of my greatest influences were guys I got to hear only once, but they had such an amazing impact. I remember seeing the Stan Kenton Band and being blown away by his bassist, John Worster. That deep, dark sound under the big band brought yet another sensibility to my playing. I was like a sponge taking in all of this great information.
What early sequence of events led to your current high-profile gigs?
Speaking of the big band, I had heard about a jazz camp that was happening in nearby Springfield, Missouri with Stan Kenton's band. After that awesome live experience, I had to go. My Mom loaded Ray and I in the car, and we drove to Drury College for the week-long event. I was even more impressed in hearing the band every evening that week which featured a young drummer by the name of Peter Erskine! It wasn't long before Peter, Ray, and I were jamming together along with several horn players from the band. I remember the band coming through St. Louis several times during that period which was a great chance to continue our jam sessions. I continued the Kenton Jazz Camp for two more years and met up with a young drummer about my age named Dave Weckl who was also from the St. Louis area. Needless to say, the living room jam sessions were in full swing. I think Dave and I still have recordings from those jams. I'll have to dig those out someday. I also began to perform with many great jazz artists that came through St. Louis over the next several years. Some of them included Barney Kessel, Nat Adderly, Sonny Stitt, Freddie Hubbard, and James Moody. It was a great opportunity to really get that "pro" perspective.
I eventually decided to make the move to New York City. Dave Weckl was living there, and I had a connection for a somewhat cheap place stay. The day I arrived, I went to see Dave performing with sax great, Ronny Kuber. Dave mentioned that legendary guitarist Bill Connors was putting together a trio, and he would be the drummer. He also offered to mention me to Bill, and it was less than a week later that the Bill Connors Trio was having rehearsals for his upcoming recording, Step It. A few days later, I walked into a club called 7th Avenue South, and Peter Erskine just happened to be playing. As I was talking with him on a break, he mentioned that Steps Ahead was looking for a bassist and asked if I would be interested in auditioning. I was, of course, and ended up having an opportunity to tour with Michael Brecker, Michael Manieri, Warren Bernhardt, and Peter Erskine for over a year. That is the story of my humble beginnings in New York!
Later this month, you will be releasing Twice As Nice which features the debut of the new Tom Kennedy Quartet. Can you tell us about the material we can expect to hear on your new project?
Twice As Nice is a recording that features my St. Louis-based band and includes the performance of standard songs from the great composers. I'm really excited about it because it will be the first recording on which I have performed, arranged, and engineered. It's quite an undertaking, technically speaking, but the music and great musicians have made it a much easier task.
I have always had an affinity for great melodies and grew up as an acoustic musician so it only seemed logical to pursue that sensibility, not to mention that the "great American standards" have had such an incredible resurgence lately. It's really a tribute to some of the great composers of our time such as Jimmy Van Huesan, Richard Rogers, and Harold Arlen. I also wanted to feature music from contemporary composers like Johnny Mandel and Burt Bacharach as they are truly today's greats. I had initially considered adding a couple of original pieces to the project but became more in awe of the greatness in these melodies as things developed, and it just didn't seem appropriate. I will be doing another solo project in the near future and thought it better to introduce my original music at that point.
How did you assemble your new quartet, and who are the featured members of the group?
I have made so many wonderful discoveries in the process of piecing this together. It all started about two years ago when I had decided to be a little more selective about my time on the road and put something together locally. I wanted to put a trio/quartet together that I could truly feel satisfied with musically but also something that would appeal to a somewhat broad audience. I was a little confused about exactly what the genre would be until I happened to meet an incredible vocalist, Karla Harris, on a rather last-minute local gig I was asked to play. After one 45-minute set, I knew she was the voice I had been waiting for. In the meantime, I had been starting to work with two extremely talented young musicians, both graduate students at Southern Illinois University. Pianist Kara Baldus and drummer Miles Vandiver were both interested in the project, and the Tom Kennedy Quartet was born. We have worked quite a bit over the last year in many live situations so the Twice As Nice project was the next logical step. I can't begin to describe what a wonderful year it's been with these great musicians and friends, and I feel so fortunate for the opportunity to play the type of music we do at such a high level.
As a leader, you have previously released two projects including Basses Loaded in 1997 and Bassics in 2002. How do these recordings differ from Twice As Nice?
The material recorded for Twice As Nice has a bit of a different intent than my previous releases. I wasn't really considering this a solo project as much as just presenting great music with great musicians in the most pure, honest way possible. I definitely consider this more of a feature recording for my band as a whole and not a "solo" project that primarily features my playing. Even though there are great jazz musicians present, Twice As Nice would not be considered a "modern jazz" recording. My brother also appears on a couple of the pieces.
Will you be conducting any regional or national tours to support the new Tom Kennedy Quartet release?
Definitely. We will begin working on regional dates at the time of the recording's release, and we have already been in contact with several promoters in the Midwest. We'll be starting out in our area and then branching out. I have also been speaking with contacts in Europe so we'll see how it goes.
Where can people purchase your music?
The Twice As Nice recording and my upcoming solo project will be available through TomKennedyMusic.com. My Bassics disc is also currently available there. The Basses Loaded recording is now sold through a European distributor, but you can still order it through Tower Records or Audiophile Imports. I did a search for it not too long ago and found copies at several other online distributors.
The Dave Weckl Band just released their brand new disc, Multiplicity, last month. Did this new project present any unique challenges as compared to prior Weckl recordings?
As with all of the DWB recordings, there is a limited amount of time to really acclimate to the new material as a band before tracking it in the studio so one of the biggest challenges is to present the music with the same command and energy as we will after playing it for several months. The music is very "part-oriented" throughout which requires quite a bit of mental organization. There is certainly the rhythmic aspect which is an ever-expanding aspect of this band, and the addition of a new "twist" in Latin or African grooves is very cool!
Does the recording process of your own quartet differ considerably from that of the Dave Weckl Band?
I would say that any recording I've ever done has always been a totally different experience from the one before or after it. I have been very lucky in the sense that in most cases the process is an enjoyable one. Such is the case with the Weckl recordings as well as my solo projects. The band thing is great because you don't have to acclimate someone into the "sound" you're looking for because you've already tailored the music to fit the personalities of your group.
You began playing the acoustic upright bass at a very young age, but you didn't pick up the electric bass until many years later. What led to your interest in playing electric bass?
I worked at my father's music store through high school. I remember a guy coming in and asking to see one of the jazz bass copies we had. I don't remember the brand name, but he plugged in and started "slapping" the bass, something I had never seen before. I sat and listened to him in awe and probably asked a thousand questions until he finally handed the bass to me and started to leave. As he was walking out, I asked where he got that technique, and he told me to go out and buy a Larry Graham album. Well, I bought ALL of the Larry Graham (Graham Central Station) albums I could find. Shortly after that, I heard Louis Johnson and a couple of other great "slap" players, and I was hooked! I was also starting to hear about other guys such as Ralph Armstrong, Rocco Prestia, Abe Laboriel, and some guy named Jaco. I was also very pleased to find out that Stanley Clarke played the electric as I was a huge fan of his acoustic playing on the early Return to Forever recordings. I was fascinated with the new musical styles of these recordings and began to realize the endless possibilities of the electric instrument.
Do you approach playing the acoustic upright different than electric bass?
There are great physical differences between the instruments so your sensibility must change to accommodate whatever instrument you are playing. I notice this much more with the right hand, especially when switching from upright to electric. Something that has helped me greatly is trying to find that pleasing middle-velocity sound that every upright and electric bass contains. There is such a purity in sound when you find that place, and it's slightly different on all instruments. Once I find that place, I then have the freedom to play with a greater dynamic. I have always stressed this point with my students. It's amazing how many guys walk in and sound exactly the same with totally different make and model basses, electric and upright. You have to discover that inherent sound in your instrument. I definitely advocate the more traditional 1-2-4 finger approach in the left hand on both instruments. It has always made more sense in my playing to maintain a "closer" hand position as I believe it to be more energy efficient. My hand remains much more relaxed with fingers closer together, still allowing me to stretch out for those necessary interval jumps. Obviously, the 4-finger stretch lends well to the upper frets on electric as the physical spacing diminishes. On the upright, the 1-2-4 fingering is usually maintained throughout the neck, although it is normally modified to a 1-2-3 finger technique above the octave. I believe that these simple points will definitely help to tighten the gap between upright and electric instruments by providing a more general technique on both.
In switching back and forth between instruments, have you found that your upright approach influences your electric bass playing and vice versa?
Absolutely, and in ways, I'm still discovering. One of my demands with students is to acclimate to both instruments, regardless of background or future intent. The main point of knowing each instrument is the inherent "feel" it represents. Although many different styles can be played on each, there is history and "depth" in each instrument that must be discovered. I feel very at ease walking on the electric and playing very funky 8th-note riffs on the upright, and those situations come up regularly. I think players sometimes view acoustic and electric instruments in too much of a traditional sense, but some of the best musical experiences come from going "outside-the-box" a little!
What have you discovered to be the most challenging aspects of doubling and how have you overcome those obstacles?
The physical aspect is still a bit tricky at times, especially if you've been playing one bass much more than the other. When I tour, it's usually either electric or acoustic. For this reason, I have developed certain hand exercises for each instrument that really help to get me back on track. As I had mentioned before, finding the correct velocity is really important so I practice simple rhythmic patterns with the right hand only, beginning with the "middle" velocity and working outward. With the left hand, the object is to finger up and down the neck with a very fluent motion between positions. I think of it as a "floating hand," making the position changes in one overall motion. I find that applying these practices for as little as 10 or 15 minutes really puts it back together for me on either instrument.
Are there particular areas of bass playing or music that you have spent significant amounts of time practicing to achieve the level of playing you've attained today?
Yes, everything! I can say that emulating other players in the early stages really taught me a great deal about sound, technique, and overall musicality. I can't begin to tell you how many songs I've learned that way without even being conscious that I WAS learning the song! In most cases, I was really honing in on the bass player or soloist just trying to pick up their ideas over whatever changes they were playing over. I have also worked on technique quite a bit but truthfully, not in the traditional ways. I was never one for running scales or classical transcriptions, although I can definitely see the benefit. I think that being in a fairly constant musical environment put me in the position of playing more in a "real time" situation such as playing with other players as opposed to a majority of time practicing alone. It really gave me a great chance to "try out" the elements I was transcribing and practicing.
You offer instruction on the college level as well as privately and by correspondence. What bass-playing topics do you tend to stress the most to your students, and how does someone interested in studying with you go about setting up lessons?
I started accepting correspondence students online through TomKennedyMusic.com a few months ago, and I now have students from all corners of the world. The internet is such an amazingly useful vehicle! I also hold a jazz faculty position at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, Illinois. We have a wonderful staff of jazz educators there.
Regarding topics, I stress different things depending on the student. Generally though, I stress the following:
Time - working with an external time source for practicing purposes, as well as playing along with live musicians to help develop a rapport.
Feel - finding the "pocket" with a particular groove as well as the communication between rhythm (and lead) players.
Technique - there are so many sub-categories to this one including basic hand positions, comfortable body and instrument relationship, the study of dynamics and accurate note placement, and the list goes on and on.
Theory - being aware of song and chord structure and knowing how to not let it get in the way when performing which is a very significant point!
For the past two decades you have been an active studio musician and have also appeared as a sideman alongside jazz veterans such as Herb Ellis, Al Di Meola, Michael Brecker, and many others. Is there anyone you would like to collaborate with that you haven't had a chance to perform with yet?
I don't think it would necessarily be playing with someone new as much as continuing to play new music. I have worked with so many great musicians across so many genres of music. I'm very fulfilled. I will say that Jimmy Cobb had been a profound part of so many great recordings I've listened to over the years, and we are talking about contacting him for a clinic/concert event sometime this year.
Out of all the musicians you've played with and all the projects you have recorded, which musicians have had the most profound impact on your own approach to music?
Without sounding to cliché, I truly believe they all have brought profound impact and influence. In an earlier question, Jerry Cherry's name came up. Man, what an influence that guy was and still is to me! He instilled so many great techniques and values about playing in such a positive, inspiring way. I never got together with Jerry when he wasn't raving about a new Eddie Gomez or Scott LaFaro or Ray Brown recording he had just picked up. I would leave that place so inspired and usually go home and practice for 3 or 4 hours. He was, and is always, a true mentor.
My brother, pianist Ray Kennedy has had the most unique influence on me as a musician. We never have to say a word, and we know exactly what the other is hearing and thinking. He used to play things for me and say, "You don't get it now and I didn't either, but this will be your favorite song by the third or forth time you listen to it." He was always right. I have been blessed to have that relationship all of these years.
Dave Weckl has been a great friend and wonderful inspiration for many years. That guy brings out the best in your playing as he demands so much of himself. Dave is so known for his amazingly precision technique and flawless presentation, but I am most blown away by just how damn good it feels to lay down a big, fat groove with him!
Playing with Al Di Meola was a great experience. Al is such a virtuoso on his instrument and a great composer. I was especially impressed with his more recent acoustic compositions and the way in which he orchestrates them within the band. There were many times when Al would be playing a flurry of notes at the peak of his solo, drums and cymbals crashing, and there I was, playing a line of tied whole notes, but it worked!
Michael Brecker is truly one of the greatest musicians of our time. What a thrill it was to play with him in the mid-80's in the legendary jazz group, Steps Ahead. I don't know if I was even fully aware of just how profound the situation was at the time, but I was very aware of the musical mastery standing four or five feet in front of me, night after night. I remember just being in awe of how different and equally intense and spirited Michael's solos were through a three or four week tour, a seemingly endless vocabulary.
What gear are you currently utilizing?
I play Fodera electric basses exclusively. I haven't felt a more natural bond with an instrument. It really feels like an extension of my hands! I actually performed with the first production Fodera 5-string bass for several years and have been through several since then including an early production 6-string and a 5-string Emperor bolt-on. I am currently playing an instrument I'm quite proud of, the Fodera TK model 5-string bass! It's based on the Anthony Jackson body style, and the main variance is the pickup configuration and spacing. There are two double-coil Lawrence pickups, one in the normal bridge pickup position and the other just slightly above it. This spacing really gives me a tight, clean punch, and the coil taps on each pickup allow me to use whatever coil configuration I want. For strings, I also use the Fodera medium gauge 5-string sets on all of my basses. They are extremely consistent and last forever. It's not uncommon to do five and six week tours with one set of strings.
I have been with the Ampeg company for seven years and am currently using the Porta Bass PB-800 amp with 2 Porta Bass PB-210H cabinets. I think the entire rig weighs in at about 60 lbs.! It has more than enough power and low end, and it matches up great with the punch of my Fodera.
My acoustic bass is quite special. My mentor in St Louis, Jerry Cherry, was also a great stringed instrument repairman. He always had basses of all sorts coming into the shop, always playing and sounding incredible when they left. I remember him talking about how good this particular instrument was going to be even though it only had one gut string and a huge screw through the top of the bridge. He was never able to work on it, and when he passed a couple of years ago, I sort of inherited the instrument. From watching Jerry work on these instruments for years, I was successfully able to repair this bass to working condition. Well, Jerry was right. You will be hearing it on all future acoustic projects I play on, guaranteed!
When you aren't touring or teaching, you record customized bass tracks for various correspondence recording sessions in your digital home studio. What motivated this service, and what equipment do you use in your studio for these sessions?
This was something that Dave Weckl has started doing over the last year or so. On one of the projects for a band in Greece, Dave was asked if I would also perform the bass tracks. It's something that feels very gratifying, as I know that many musicians/composers have a certain sound in mind for their music. If mine happens to be that sound or style, it's really great to be able to accommodate their musical vision.
I have always been a Digital Performer guy, as it has such great sequencing capabilities. I really know the program from years of application which made the audio portion much more user-friendly for me. I'm using a MOTU 828 converter, and I must admit that I'm still experimenting with various preamps. I'm really happy with the clean flat sound from my Fodera for the electric projects, and I use a Newman KM84 for my 250 year-old Bohemian upright.
Besides the new release from the Dave Weckl Band, are there any other upcoming releases that your playing will be featured on?
My brother and I are in the process of working out material for a new Kennedy Brothers project. We're still getting ideas down and deciding on additional personnel. It usually comes together pretty last-minute with us, but it's nothing less than magical when the recording begins!
I am also writing for a new solo recording that I hope to get underway by the beginning of 2006. I am definitely looking at the project as a high energy, fusion-type of presentation, and I'm sure there will be a couple of personnel surprises!
I have also been contacted by several people to appear on upcoming recordings as a sideman, and I will keep you up to date as these projects materialize!
With The Tom Kennedy Quartet:
Twice As Nice
With The Dave Weckl Band:
Live (And Very Plugged In)
Drummers Collective 25th Anniversary Celebration
Rhythm Of The Soul
With Al Di Meola:
The Infinite Desire
With Planet X:
With Tania Maria:
With Bill Conners:
Fodera Tom Kennedy 5-String Fretted Electric Bass
250 Year-Old Bohemian Acoustic Upright
Ampeg Porta Bass PB-800 Amp
Ampeg Porta Bass PB-210H Speaker Cabinets
Fodera Medium Gauge Strings