Catching Up With…
by Ilya Stemkovsky
Feeling good to be right back in the Yellowjackets’ swing of things.
The future was a mystery for Will Kennedy at the turn of the millennium, after he announced that he’d leave the high-profile electric jazzers Yellowjackets to focus on other projects. Now, after returning to the band in 2010, he’s sounding fresher than ever all over the group’s latest release, Cohearence.
“It was like riding a bike,” Kennedy says of being back in the fold. “Yellowjackets have always been a family environment. I thought I had put my time in and it came to a conclusion. Even though I was out for ten years, we remained in contact. We did a gig on the side at the Baked Potato in L.A., calling ourselves the Hornets. A seed was planted. We tried it on and it felt good. And here I am. I’m happy. It feels like home.”
Has anything changed now that the band is thirty-five years into its career? “There’s something special that occurs,” Kennedy says. “Of course you have to get along personally. It’s important to like and love the people you’re performing with. When you’ve spent that length of time with a musician, there’s a built-in exploration that occurs. You know where to stretch somebody or when to give them a little push or when to lighten up. You get a good idea of how to nurture or develop someone’s solo. You know how they speak on their instrument. You develop an unspoken vocabulary.”
Cohearance, which features new bassist Dane Alderson (“He has a knack,” Kennedy says, “for settling into a groove and making it feel like a big living room couch”), continues the band’s tradition of beautifully crafted tunes that are hummable but also act as springboards for soaring improvisational flights from each player. Kennedy’s tricky “Fran’s Scene” fits the bill with excellent cymbal work and dynamics. “An odd-meter groove can sometimes feel a little strange,” the drummer explains. “I found some approaches that gave the odd meter an even feel. The faster 7/8 can be counted in the longer seven that begins the tune. Sometimes your chords sound bigger when you leave certain notes out. The same with a groove. There’s a lot of 1’s that I’m leaving out. To not mark where the 1 is, it gives the illusion of a longer bar.”
After all the touring that the Yellowjackets have continued to do, Kennedy still finds time to connect with other drummers. “Clinics continue to evolve,” he says. “Lately I’ve had so much fun making the clinic interactive. So it’s not just me up there blowing away and then standing up and asking if there are any questions. I’ve grabbed people from the audience and had them demonstrate some of the points that I’d been making about drumming or music. Suddenly you see that epiphany in their eyes when they’re playing it. That makes it almost like a one-on-one drum lesson in public.”
As for the future of the band, Kennedy says, “I’m looking to grow, expand, and bring in new ideas. It’s a never-ending cycle. You can never know it all. I’m just keeping open ears, keeping the inspiration going, and hoping to keep inspiring up-and-coming musicians.”
Will Kennedy last graced the cover of Modern Drummer in December of 2000, when he was set to take a hiatus from the Yellowjackets. Kennedy, who has won numerous readers polls in the magazine, has been the house drummer for The Wayne Brady Show and The Martin Short Show and toured with Chaka Khan, Lee Ritenour, and Jonathan Butler. To watch Will’s performance at the 2014 PASIC convention, go to Modern Drummer’s YouTube page. And be sure to check out Kennedy’s YouTube channel—search for Will’s Music Room.