Tom Kennedy: It’s All Swing
Tom Kennedy opens his third album as a leader, Just For The Record, by running his electric bass in dizzying circles around Dave Weckl’s bouncy drums. “Breakneck” is a short, bubbly exercise in speed, the musicians playfully sparring with their instruments. It showcases Kennedy’s prodigious abilities, but also highlights the friendships and strong musical relationships that have defined his career.
Weckl and Kennedy first met at a summer camp in 1975 when they were both high-school freshmen. Another childhood friend, Jay Oliver, splits keyboard duties on the album with Charles Blenzig. The session’s guitarist, the iconic Mike Stern, is a newer acquaintance who has nonetheless counted Kennedy as a musical ally for years.
These associations, both new and old, are an inexorable part of music-making that Kennedy views counterintuitively as a way to keep his music sounding new. The musicians on his latest disc have performed in varied configurations countless times, but they don’t find themselves navigating the same ideas or re-treading tired territory.
“It’s fresh, and I can count on it at the same time,” Kennedy says, his demeanor echoing the unbridled energy in his bass playing. “It’s not about being old or stale. I base my favorite musical relationships with people who keep it new—that are always advancing, trying different things.”
Weckl counts the relative easy of recording as one of the benefits of musical kinship with Kennedy. When laying down tracks on Just For The Record, the two didn’t have to navigate through a belabored setup of the music and instead simply started playing. “When you’ve spent so much time listening, talking and playing together, it all just happens so much quicker,” Weckl says. “[Friendship] generally adds to the overall vibe—unless there’s a spat going on!”
As a bassist, Kennedy has spent a lot of time playing for other people. He spent three years backing up guitarist Al Di Meola, and lately he’s been working with Stern and Lee Ritenour’s bands. Kennedy is so busy, in fact, that it’s hard to catch him at a hometown gig in New York City. This frenzied work schedule was developed by expanding his circle of friends and never burning a bridge. “So much of it in this business is about networking—just knowing as many players as you can in as many parts of the world as you can,” he says.
Kennedy plays electric bass on his latest recording, but in his mind, electric and acoustic are almost interchangeable. During a hectic week spent backing numerous all-star groups and serving in the house rhythm section on the 2012 Jazz Cruise in early February, Kennedy never played staid walking patterns on his acoustic bass. He injected his own carefree style into each accompaniment, creating musical lines that bounded up and down the neck.
Playing both electric and acoustic has helped inform his approach to jazz, he says. This manifests
itself in his walking bass playing on electric, which is derived directly from his experience on the acoustic instrument. As he was playing acoustic on the cruise, many of his solos sounded as if they were first mapped out on an electric fretboard. The bassist has no preference as to which instrument he’d rather use on any given day; it simply depends on his mood and the demands of the individual session.
“Usually when I’m playing one type of thing, I long for the other, which is normal. I love the feeling of an acoustic hard swing when you’re playing a straightahead kind of thing, as well as a real intense fusion groove or a funky kind of thing [on the electric],” he says. “It’s all swing to me.”
Kennedy first glimpsed the acoustic bass at age 8, when his older brother lugged the instrument home from school band practice. His attraction to the bass’s resonance was immediate and unrelenting. A decade later, Kennedy became just as fascinated by the electric when a patron tested out an instrument at his father’s music shop. Ever since, he’s been performing double duty in a range of musical contexts.
His next project, in fact, will be on the upright, he says. Since Just For The Record is an electric album, he wants to balance out his catalog with a collection of swing tunes on acoustic bass. Additionally, Kennedy is considering putting a touring band together.
Kennedy’s childhood connections, mixed with newer professional allegiances, mean that the bassist is busier than ever. In fact, even in this down economy, he thinks there’s more demand for musicians in general, and he’s found himself working more often. And when the next gig comes, chances are Kennedy will have a solid relationship with at least one of the members of the band.