Before & After with Drummer Kendrick Scott

Listening to Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, the MJQ and more

Elvin Jones
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Art Blakey
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The Roots
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Vijay Iyer with Marcus Gilmore (l.) and Stephan Crump
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Kendrick Scott
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Judging by Facebook posts alone, Kendrick Scott enjoyed an especially engaging summer. The bandleader, drummer and sideman to various jazz headliners-Terence Blanchard, Herbie Hancock, Kurt Rosenwinkel and, most recently, Grégoire Maret, Kurt Elling and Charles Lloyd-performed at major festivals and theaters around the globe, from Los Angeles and Minneapolis to Melbourne, Cologne, Nice, Perugia and Ghent. This fall, he’s seen a number of projects come to fruition, including his fourth album as a leader and first on the Blue Note label, We Are the Drum, featuring his band Oracle (Taylor Eigsti, piano and Rhodes; Michael Moreno, guitar; John Ellis, saxophone and bass clarinet; and bassist Joe Sanders) with a guest turn by vocalist Lizz Wright. Next year he’ll participate in a Blue Note supergroup along the lines of Our Point of View, which he took part in throughout 2014.

Scott’s dizzying schedule is indicative of the grounded consistency and flexibility of his drumming that keeps him in demand. His new tenure with Lloyd, which he admits brings a fresh set of challenges with every concert, remained the driving force of the summer. It was this gig that brought Scott to the Nice Jazz Festival, where the following Before & After, the drummer’s first, took place on a stage the festival inaugurated this year for live interviews and presentations. The date was July 8-also, incidentally, Scott’s 35th birthday.

1. Elvin Jones

“Destiny” (Elvin Jones Is “On the Mountain,” PM). Jones, drums; Jan Hammer, electric piano; Gene Perla, electric bass. Recorded in 1975.

BEFORE: [almost immediately] Elvin Jones, On the Mountain, with Jan Hammer and … I forgot who was on bass, and the name of the tune. That was a really important recording for me as I was coming up with the concept of my band and actually trying to figure out a way to include electronics in what we were doing. Not necessarily just playing groove-I don’t want to say “groove music,” because all this music we play is grooving-but the idea of including electronics with more of a swinging, improvisatory basis, where the groove was happening hand-in-hand with its creation.

AFTER: “Destiny”? OK. Gene Perla on bass. That whole record is very special. Usually when I was hearing electronics in music of the ’70s it was mostly about changing how you interpret music into more of a groove-based thing. But I noticed that Elvin played with the same fire and intensity, and in the same style and character, that he played with on A Love Supreme, though the context was totally different. I really loved how he could make his personality fit into so many different contexts and it was always authentic to who he was as a musician and person. I connected with that immediately; that’s something I wanted to try to embody.

2. Charles Lloyd Quartet

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” (Mirror, ECM). Lloyd, tenor saxophone; Jason Moran, piano, Reuben Rogers, bass; Eric Harland, drums. Recorded in 2010.

BEFORE: [laughs] That’s somebody I’m privileged to be playing with now-that’s Charles Lloyd on sax and that’s the band he played with before us, with Eric Harland on drums, Reuben Rogers on bass and Jason Moran on the piano.

I hope I’m making it challenging for you, but I don’t think I am. What gave it away-was it more the saxophone or the drums?

AFTER: That’s an interesting question. It took a second with the drums, but when Charles came in it was evident. Eric has such a strong sound by himself, and I should have recognized him but I didn’t. The drums had something that stood out in the beginning that my mind was trying to recognize who it was.

For me it’s been interesting because I’ve been following in Eric’s footsteps since I was 14 years old-he was graduating from [the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, in Houston] as I was coming into it. I had seen Eric around Houston a lot playing with different people and I’ve always connected with how, in the way Elvin had his own personality on the drums, Eric was developing his at a very young age. I think the dichotomy in Eric’s playing and a lot of other drummers from Houston is that there’s a recognition of the tradition but there’s also always a questioning of that tradition: How can we change it to make it feel more relevant to us in our time? I think Eric did that by playing more ground up, more in the realm of the drums rather than cymbals down, which a lot of jazz drummers do. Eric plays in a way that has a really interesting and different feeling, even when it’s straight-ahead music.

Eric was with Charles for so long, and definitely his dialogue on this track is interesting because when Charles plays he’s daring you to take a chance. Eric had to deal with that. I hear this track and I hear the way he reacts to things in the moment and how he mastered the sensitivity and the consciousness that it takes to play with a great master like Charles. As soon as I entered this gig Eric talked to me, and all he said was to be ready and be open. That’s something that I’ve really taken to heart every time I hear Charles.

3. Antonio Sanchez

“The Anxious Battle for Sanity” (Birdman: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, Milan). Sanchez, drums. Recorded in 2014.

BEFORE: Wow. So I’ve never heard that music with just the drums, no dialogue or movie action. That’s Antonio Sanchez from the Birdman soundtrack. I recognized it right away-the space he used and his attack on the drums and how the tuning he used is connected to a few of the cymbals he also used. That track brought me back to the visual space of the film. I remembered it right away.

I think Antonio’s work on Birdman was a watershed moment for drums in general, showing how drums can be so dynamic, how they can change the tenor of what’s being seen and make you feel a different way with just how the drums are hit. I think that people think of drums only in one way, as one instrument, but they really are an orchestra of instruments, and if you really listen you realize there’s an orchestra inside each of those instruments. I think that’s very important, because then you realize that an open hi-hat is very different from a half-open hi-hat and a closed hi-hat. Those are three completely different feelings.

When I went and saw Birdman in the theater, the drums were so out front and in your face that you could hear each part of the orchestra. I’ve watched Terence Blanchard build the score to a film with a real orchestra and make everything fit with the picture. But to see how Antonio did it with just a drum set is very encouraging, and makes me think that maybe one day I could do that. I’m a drummer, so I could not help but listen to it as a drummer, but I feel if I wasn’t I would still be feeling and hearing things in the same way.

4. Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers

“Duck Soup” (Oh-By the Way, Timeless). Blakey, drums; Terence Blanchard, trumpet; Donald Harrison, alto saxophone; Bill Pierce, tenor saxophone; Johnny O’Neal, piano; Charles Fambrough, bass. Recorded in 1982.

BEFORE: Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. I’m trying to remember the band. Jean Toussaint? No? Is it Terence? Yes, OK. Mulgrew Miller? No? Donald Brown? Billy Pierce, I know that.

AFTER: I hear Art right away: the hi-hat and that press roll which is always in your face, and his dynamism. If there is one thing that I have taken from Blakey it’s how dynamic you can be. He could lead the band with a whisper or lead it with a roar.

Speaking of using the drum kit like an orchestra, the way he used the hi-hat became very integral to how musicians play now. A lot of drummers think that all the intensity comes from beating the ride cymbal, but he knew how to place the hi-hat voice right underneath the ride, and sometimes on top of the ride. So when the volume of the band came down, the hi-hat would still be driving and the music would still feel intense, but you wouldn’t know why.

To me he redefined the role of the drummer as bandleader. Even when his name wasn’t up there as a leader he would still play a leading role. When I put on Miles’ first Blue Note [compilation] album, Vol. 1, I still felt his spirit being the leader. He was pushing and pulling everybody along, making everything happen. So many drummers have taken from that, me included. And, of course, how he brought up the talent in his band. I’m actually a product of that through Terence. I think he passed that on to Terence and then he passed that on to me, and hopefully one day I’ll gain enough knowledge in order to pass it on to whomever I might have in my band.

I think you might be more associated with Terence than with any other leader. How does it sound to hear your onetime boss in a band-member role?

It’s amazing-I mean, 1982! I can hear how much his playing has changed since, but I still hear some of the same things. His technique is even more together now but it’s still in the same spirit he had then-and the spirit that he’s playing with seems even deeper. His voice was as strong when he was a youngster as it is now. It’s encouraging to see how much he’s grown in his artistry and in his playing on his instrument.

5. The Roots

“Donuts (Intro)” (Dilla Joints, Okayplayer.com). “Captain” Kirk Douglas, guitar; Kamal Gray, keyboards; Owen Biddle, bass; Questlove (Ahmir Thompson), drums, vocal introduction. Recorded in 2010.

BEFORE: I’m going to take a guess and say Karriem Riggins because I love his productions and I think this is produced by a drummer. I did like the inclusion of the humming at the start, creating the groove from the voice, with the beat coming from inside someone. The voice and the drum are pretty much the two first instruments. I love that connection of having those two things together. But I’m trying to figure out who this is. The beat sounds like it must be Dilla.

AFTER: Oh, it’s Ahmir playing that-a tribute to Dilla? I’m behind the times on that one. The jazz-hip-hop connection is very strong. There are two drummers that I’m amazed by because of their record collections. One is a guy who I got to take lessons with, Kenny Washington, and the second person is Questlove. I went into his studio and saw his record collection, and it just made me think of all he’s listened to and how he puts it into his music and his taste in choosing what he uses. That was really important for me to see, because sometimes when we think of other drummers, we look at them more as far as how much they can play but not the intent of what they’re playing and where it’s coming from.

Questlove has listened to Art Blakey and James Gadson and Bernard Purdie as well as Roy Haynes. He’s taken so many different angles of the music and fused them into his band, which is one thing I love about

the Roots. Another thing is that they’re really a band, and that’s very important from a jazz perspective, the band element.

I think the beauty of jazz and hip-hop together is how jazz has melded into hip-hop: The use of so many samples and themes to create hip-hop themes has made much of hip-hop what it is today. Right now I think what’s happening is that hip-hop is melding back into jazz; it’s like those two rivers down in Brazil where the buoyancy of each is different but they’re right next to each other and they keep rubbing against each other. It’s really beautiful to hear drummers sound like an MPC [electronic drum synthesizer] sometimes and then not sound like that at all. Today I hear a lot of talented people who can get into and switch between both mindsets, which is what a great drummer like Quest does, and others do, like Chris Dave.

6. Modern Jazz Quartet

“I’ll Remember April” (Concorde, Prestige). John Lewis, piano; Milt Jackson, vibraphone; Percy Heath, bass; Connie Kay, drums. Recorded in 1955.

BEFORE: I know I’m going to feel bad if I mess this up, but I have two answers. I’m going with Klook, Kenny Clarke, and Connie Kay. It’s the Modern Jazz Quartet-Milt [Jackson], Percy Heath and John Lewis. “I’ll Remember April.”

But is it Klook or Connie? I was listening for the cymbal and I couldn’t hear the drums that well. I know that Kenny Clarke always drives with the cymbal, but Connie also has the same ride-centric sound. But it’s not as aggressive, so I can’t decide. When I couldn’t hear all the drums I was like, “Well, maybe that’s Connie because it’s really light,” but then it became more aggressive.

AFTER: The first album Connie was on with the MJQ-OK, that makes sense. The reason that got me is I felt the cymbal was a little aggressive and I don’t remember ever hearing him have that kind of edge. He always had a quiet fire but that tune had a little more of an edge than usual, so I really appreciated that. I still take a lot from him, mostly orchestration and playing what the music needs.

Talk about orchestration but with simplicity-Connie had that. I love listening to Connie: how he would take just a simple triangle or bell hit and it would mean so much, and how he never really overplayed.

7. Jeff “Tain” Watts

“Brilliant Corners” (Blue, Vol. 1, Dark Key). Watts, drums; Troy Roberts, tenor saxophone; David Budway, piano; Neal Caine, bass. Recorded in 2014.

BEFORE: [almost immediately] So that’s Jeff “Tain” Watts, and it’s a Monk tune. What’s the name of that song? I think of Tain as a logical extension of Elvin, in the way he took some of Elvin’s vocabulary to places where he hadn’t been using it. Tain used his personality to push and pull things, and he was also coming from a fusion perspective. I think he can be drum-centric in the way he communicates with all the other instrumentalists in the band. He came along at a time when that was very unique, playing with Wynton, developing a certain sound that was so current when I was a youngster. I know this is newer stuff but he’s always been very important.

AFTER: That’s “Brilliant Corners”? Wow. I was listening to those metric modulations: As a drummer I can tell you those are hard enough, and then to be leading the group. I think Tain is one of the drummers who has such a strong base. He’s such a great musician and arranger and has perfect pitch, and that all helps the way he leads and fuels the fire in his band. His rhythm is so sound that he knows how to translate it to the other people in his band, which is hard to do without being overbearing sometimes.

He’s the master at knowing the grid, meaning the possibilities in rhythm. There’s a certain kind of grid that drummers work with. If you imagine a grid with a box this big or with lines this big, and as a drummer and bandleader we figure out which boxes to fill in and which to stay out of. We try and balance it so it works in its own special way, and we don’t always have to be inside of the boxes all the time. Tain has like a million lines in his grid where he can play and place everything; his ideas are limitless in how he plays and in how he translates them to each of the members of the band.

8. Herbie Hancock

“Actual Proof” (Thrust, Columbia). Hancock, electric piano, synthesizers; Bennie Maupin, soprano saxophone; Paul Jackson, electric bass; Mike Clark, drums; Bill Summers, percussion. Recorded in 1974.

BEFORE: [immediately] Mike Clark! I came across him through this recording and fell in love with everything he did with Herbie and the Headhunters. I heard how his sound was so different from the other fusion stuff I had heard at that moment and still to this day. His playing is very particular, with a certain simplicity in what he does. He doesn’t use so many of the drums. It’s a ground-up approach, especially on this tune-mostly just hi-hat, snare and bass.

Mike’s so important in showing how the basic feeling of groove music isn’t always just playing 2 and 4 on the drums. His linear playing creates a loop that’s so beautiful without playing the same stock thing all the time.

9. Vijay Iyer Trio

“Hood” (Break Stuff, ECM). Iyer, piano; Stephan Crump, bass; Marcus Gilmore, drums. Recorded in 2014.


BEFORE: That’s Marcus Gilmore and the Vijay Iyer Trio. Marcus is a good friend of mine; I’m used to being around him and hearing his sound. This is from their newest record, Break Stuff. When I listen to them it’s another band that makes me think of a grid and how this trio can make anything feel so comfortable. They’ll be playing in the craziest time signature but the groove’s always so relaxed, like it’s in 4; it swings in the simplicity of this song and the arrangement.

AFTER: OK, a tribute to [techno producer] Robert Hood. I’m kind of behind the times on knowing him so I’ll have to do my research. Marcus and Vijay and Stephan have developed a certain sound that has permeated through the jazz world right now, and you can tell it’s good because it’s very controversial-one side says it’s good, one side says it’s not. I think that’s when you know you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing [laughs].

So whenever I hear them I’m like, “OK, they’re going for what their heart tells them, and in the end your legacy is in finding what your space is and where you belong and in developing a body of work that tells that story.” They are constantly telling new stories from the same heart, and it keeps growing. I can hear Marcus spreading out more and more, and Vijay definitely writes to that part of Marcus. As a drummer and a musician, he’s incredible.

I know you were a bit hesitant about this Before & After. Did we do OK?

I’ve enjoyed it. I swore I would never do it but it’s been fun and enlightening, especially hearing all those drummers back to back, the similarities and differences. It’s actually something I’ll take with me to my room tonight and go listen to those cats again.

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