It doesn’t take long to realize just how much detailed analysis this blazing leader and sideman applies to his art. And that might be exactly why, when the time comes to create in the moment, he’s so free to surrender to his muse and just…react. Ken Micallef digs deep into the methods and mindset of one of jazz drumming’s leading lights.
Like a handful of drummers currently populating what is still referred to as the jazz scene, thirty-two-year-old Kendrick Scott is well trained, possesses a wide knowledge of many styles, and carries the deep fervor, skills, and inspiration to move the music forward. His third album, Conviction, is a seamless journey through various emotional and even spiritual states of the musical mind. Accompanied for the second time by his group Oracle—now including saxophonist/bass clarinetist John Ellis, guitarist Mike Moreno, pianist Taylor Eigsti, and bassist Joe Sanders—Scott flows and explodes, pirouettes and stings with extreme sensitivity and creativity.
The music of Conviction swells and surges with moody intensity, the band coursing through ethereal funk, straight-ahead jazz, vocal R&B, droning ambient washes, and wailing Coltrane-like crescendos. Throughout, the drumming is empathetic and in the moment, whether Scott is kicking his large secondary bass drum, striking a mini Chinese gong, twisting tom sounds with spacey ’70s-style Pro Tools effects, masterfully sweeping brushes around a snare drum à la Kenny Washington, or navigating a Bruce Lee sample (“Styles tend to separate man…but you need to be shapeless—be water, my friend”).
A veteran drummer who has recorded and/or toured with Herbie Hancock, Dianne Reeves, Kurt Elling, and John Scofield and who currently works with Gretchen Parlato and Terence Blanchard (where he replaced his good friend and mentor Eric Harland), Scott honed his chops in drum corps throughout grade school, attended Houston’s prestigious High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, then headed to the Berklee School of Music. Coming out of school, he had not one but two gigs, with Joe Sample and the Crusaders and with Blanchard’s group.
Scott treats his drumming and music—released on his World Culture Music label via Concord—as a spiritual quest, a journey that defines his existence. He writes advice to himself on his drumsticks. He recites a personal prayer before every performance. He always wears a tie. He never got his driver’s license while in high school because he was too busy practicing. (He remains without a license today.) And when he performs, his great power and technique are harnessed and delivered through an almost Zen-like approach. Liquid, flowing, shapeless—like water.
MD: You have a vision as a musician, and it comes across on your records. Your drumming flows; it seems almost effortless. Are you beyond technical concerns? You always play in the moment.
Kendrick: As I get older I start to realize that the more I can be in the moment without preconceived emotions about anything, the better I can handle situations, and my true, honest self will come out. One of the things that helps me with that is to recite a prayer, the prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi. And I write that on my sticks: “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.” I start with the prayer, and when I see that on my sticks it gives me perspective into what drumming and life are all about.
As a musician you are playing an instrument, but you should be the instrument. So the more I can quiet my mind, the more I can get into the headspace of being the instrument, rather than just playing it. The mind is weird. It’s always telling you things like, Oh, the guys are here—somebody is watching, or Oh, I just made a mistake.
It was interesting to play with Herbie Hancock. After our first show I was apologizing for my mistakes and he said, “Man, I didn’t hear it as a mistake, just as another opportunity for you to do something.” I try to think along those lines. If you’re too involved with something in the past or trying to engage the future, then you’re not in the moment. That prayer helps me stay in the moment. Then it’s all about a higher calling when you’re playing music and when you’re living your life.
MD: So when you’re having a bad night, how do you overcome that?
Kendrick: It’s really hard. I’ve not mastered it. But as I sit down to play music, I’m getting better at taming the voices, so to speak. One pixie on this shoulder says, “You suck,” and the other says, “You’re doing all right.” They’re always going, but I try not to listen to either of them and just try to get deeper and deeper within the music. The other things, they will figure themselves out. Even on a bad technique day I hope to express something that people will enjoy.
MD: You number your sticks as well?
Kendrick: Yes, I match sticks by weight and by pitch. We spend so much money and time as jazz musicians trying to find the right ride cymbal. If I’m playing one stick and it sounds one way and another stick sounds another way, it doesn’t ease my spirit. It creates dysfunction in my brain.
I’m used to hearing a certain sound in my cymbals. I use higher-pitched sticks; nylon tips help that. I play thin and dark cymbals, and the nylon tips give me the top, that singing sound on top of the cymbal. And it can also give you the wash, though I try not to get too much of a wispy cymbal. I like really dark and rich-sounding cymbals, not thin and wispy, not too thick or brittle.
I’m always trying to figure out how my sticks relate to the instrument. I try not to choke the sticks, and I try to use the pitch of the sticks when I’m playing. I’m hearing the sound of the stick all the time. If you’re choking the energy of the stick, you’re not transferring it into the instrument. That’s a part of numbering the sticks. Having them be the same and of a certain weight and pitch helps me to better get to that end.
MD: Do nylon-tip sticks give you more uniformity of sound?
Kendrick: It’s weird, I think the sound is pretty uniform. I’ve just come to love it. I started with Vater Manhattan 7As when I was a kid. One day I went in the store—I was playing wood tips then, but then in the store I got some nylon tips without knowing it. I loved them. And I came to find out one of my favorite drummers, Kenny Washington, has been playing nylon all of his life. I was really touched by that. The clarity in Kenny’s cymbals is always there. For my cymbal sound it’s perfect.
MD: You often speak of the concept of give and take.
Kendrick: I apply that to the entire instrument. I might spend a whole day with the snare drum, just to see how many sounds I can get from the one instrument: center, edge, cross-stick, dead stroke. I go through all of them, and every time I find new sounds. Those are all a give and a take.
Stravinsky said the human ear is used to similarities more than it is differences. As jazz drummers we play so much different stuff, the core of what we do should be similar, and then the extra things we do will become bigger. That’s give and take, like playing a groove really solidly, then changing where you play it. That can bring out so much. There’s always an ebb and flow in how you’re playing, from playing the drums to programming a set of music.
MD: You seem to use minimal motion when you play, but you have a ton of energy. You don’t flail, but you play very dynamically.
Kendrick: In playing in the DCI drum corps, I learned that the snare drummers were always composed and they always held a certain position with their hands. While they were holding that position, there were benefits to stick height and sound. It’s easier to get a sound by dropping the stick than moving your whole arm into the drum. So my dynamic range can go from a small tap to a huge motion using Moeller or that type of approach.
My setup is based on that economy of motion. Most of my drums are flat; that gives me the type of rebound I want. When I use parallel surfaces I can transfer the energy throughout the drums and cymbals to where the stick can bounce off the instrument. I teach students to take the stick and touch the instrument and bring the hand back right away. When you do that, it sounds like a tape player in reverse. You don’t hear the drum—you hear the backwards sound. That changes your dynamic range.
I always think of unaccented notes as an inch above the head; those are just drops. I think of my technique as needle and thread. I want my drumming to be powerful but transparent. All the masters, like Jack DeJohnette, Connie Kay, Roy Haynes—they all have that. I want my sound to penetrate, but my technique is the thread, loose and malleable. It holds everything together.
MD: Your records are in the tradition, but you’re also moving the music forward. When did Connie Kay meet Dennis Chambers in your drumming, as you’ve described your style?
Kendrick: When I joined Terence Blanchard’s band. Before that I was always using references. If I played swing, I was thinking Billy Higgins. Or Philly Joe Jones. Or Zutty Singleton. That can be your downfall.
With Terence, I replaced Eric Harland, who I knew from high school. I grew up emulating Eric. I looked up to him like a big brother, so I thought I knew what worked when joining Terence Blanchard’s group. But when I played Eric’s stuff none of it worked, because the spirit wasn’t right. Terence allowed me some time to work through it. He said, “Don’t listen to any more records for the gig. Listen to the music.”
I had to practice: rudiments, conception, and the creative aspect of discovery. It all has a trickle-down effect. Your references are the base of the pyramid, then you move up to the people you’re playing with, then to the song you’re playing, and at the top of that is the imagination. That is the peak of any art form.
MD: Do your solos always reference the form, or do you also solo free?
Kendrick: I try to base solos off cells within the tune. It might be a melodic phrase, and I will use that. I might invert it, turn it upside down, slow it down, use it as a bass motion.
Terence uses this compositional technique called “If I could tell you, I would.” The most obvious way to use it is to listen to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, which is really only four notes. If I can base a whole symphony of work on the drumset off four notes, if I can only think of that, I don’t have to worry about pulling things out of the hat. All the music is intrinsically in one idea. That really resonated with me. So I try to play cells like that inside of tunes. I might take a soloist line that somebody played. And I can use my imagination to inform all of it. It can be endless. I want to use cells inside the tune to create layers and phrases.
MD: Why do you always wear a tie?
Kendrick: The masters were always sharp, from Gene Krupa to Roy Haynes. I consider that when I think about music. I don’t want my music to be perfection, but I want an intrinsic thing that says, “I care about not only my music but how I present and carry myself.” You have to present yourself a certain way. All of my idols do that.
MD: What is the meter in your song “Mantra”?
Kendrick: It’s in 5/4. With odd meters, I always try to feel them in four. I think that’s key to playing any odd meter. If you’re playing 4/4, you think every beat. It’s easy for us to feel half time. And if we’re playing in three we usually hear the dotted 8th note. So I play and think of that over 4/4. I take the same approach with all odd meters. [Sings various odd meters while tapping 4/4 pulse.] I’m not a math wiz, but I practiced all those partials. I show my students how to play 5/2 with the left foot and 5/8 with the hands. But I’m always thinking in four. It might come from listening to tabla. And I always practice with the metronome on 1 and 3. I want to feel the pulse that I am supposed to springboard from. With music, it’s not always what you play—it’s what you hear.
Drums: Yamaha Phoenix in ash amber gloss
- 61/2×14 Lang-Gladstone/Dunnett Custom snare (titanium shell made by Ronn Dunnett and the rest by Morris “Arnie” Lang) or 6 1/2×14 Craviotto snare (solid walnut/ maple/walnut shell)
- 8×12 tom
- 13×14 floor tom
- 14×16 floor tom
- 14×18 bass drum
- 16×22 bass drum
Heads: Remo Coated Ambassador snare batter and Snare Side bottom (no collar), coated Ambassador tom batters and Renaissance Diplomat bottoms, Coated Ambassador 18″ bass drum batter and Powerstroke 4 Yamaha-logo front head, and Clear Powerstroke 3 22″ bass drum batter and Powerstroke 4 Yamaha-logo front head
- 15″ Zildjian K hi-hats from the ’50s (with rivets)
- 21″ Spizzichino ride
- 22″ Zildjian Bounce ride (with rivets)
- 21″ Zildjian Bounce ride (prototype)
- 10″ Zildjian Ascending gong
Sticks: Vater Swing model (nylon tip), Super Jazz model, retractable wire brushes, T7 mallets, and Poly Flex brushes
Clifford Brown and Max Roach Clifford Brown and Max Roach (Max Roach) /// Fela Kuti Fela’s London Scene (Tony Allen) /// John Coltrane A Love Supreme (Elvin Jones) /// Bill Withers Still Bill (James Gadson) /// Billy Cobham Total Eclipse (Billy Cobham) /// Miles Davis Live at the Plugged Nickel (Tony Williams) /// A Tribe Called Quest Beats, Rhymes and Life /// Ravel Daphnis & Chloe: Pavane for a Dead Princess /// Roy Haynes We Three (Roy Haynes) /// James Brown Make It Funky: The Big Payback (various)
Kendrick Scott Oracle Conviction, The Source /// Kendrick Scott Reverence /// Mike Moreno Between the Lines /// Gretchen Parlato The Lost and Found, In a Dream /// Terence Blanchard Flow, A Tale of God’s Will /// Kurt Elling 1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project