Kendrick Scott: In Search of Implied Harmony

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“I guess that’s my personality: On the outside I’m very mellow, but, inside, my brain is going 100 miles a minute,” says Scott.

(Photo: Justin Bettman)

Kendrick Scott loves harmony at least as much as he loves rhythm, possibly more. “To me, one of the most beautiful things in music is harmony, like pianos and guitars,” the drummer and composer says. “The lush feeling of harmony is neck-and-neck with rhythm for me. I think I’m a weird drummer in that way. Melody is always king, but I feel like harmony is the emotional content of the music.”

After four albums with his group Oracle, which relied heavily on the textures of keyboards and guitar, it was no small thing for Scott to record his first trio album, just drums, saxophone and bass. Of course, any jazz drummer who is tempted to go that route would be well advised to travel with musicians of the caliber of Scott’s collaborators: Walter Smith III on tenor and Reuben Rogers on bass.

The classic saxophone trio is one of the purest and most bracing expressions of jazz. It’s not a music in which to lose oneself; it’s the antithesis of “ambient.” It demands the listener’s attention and active participation — and a particular kind of participation, to fill in the missing pieces, to hear the harmony that is mostly implied. It makes extraordinary demands on the players to sound complete in themselves.

This is what Smith, Rogers and Scott achieve on Corridors, Scott’s new Blue Note album. The music was commissioned by Rio Sakairi of New York’s Jazz Gallery, where it was first performed in September 2021. The band played the material live only one other time prior to the recording, at New York’s Blue Note.

Corridors avoids a common trap of saxophone trio recordings: a certain sameness of presentation from track to track. Here Scott’s haunting ballads are accompanied by his quiet vocals, high-energy jaunts played with Scott’s trademark finesse, musical palate cleansers involving multitracked saxophones and bass, and one well-chosen cover: a magically in-the-pocket reading of Bobby Hutcherson “Isn’t This My Sound Around Me,” featuring a killer saxophone solo by Smith.

Scott is one of the most introspective and restrained drummers in jazz. His playing is exceptionally fluid and subtle. He is also a sophisticated composer whose hooky melodies lean towards the poetic and spiritual. He and Smith met as teenagers a week before both entered Houston’s famed High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. They were classmates of Beyoncé and Robert Glasper. “All the other drummers gravitated toward him,” recalls Smith, the celebrated tenor saxophonist, who now serves as chair of woodwinds at Berklee College of Music. “We always wanted to know what he was listening to. He was a tastemaker for us.”

After attending Berklee on scholarship, Scott moved to New York in 2003 and began playing with Terence Blanchard, who became a mentor and encouraged him to become a bandleader. He has also worked extensively with Charles Lloyd, Robert Glasper, Gretchen Parlato and many other A-list jazz artists. Corridors is his sixth album as a leader.

The U.S. Virgin Islands-born Rogers, also a veteran of the Charles Lloyd Quartet, is a few years older than Scott and Smith. He gushes about the trio’s results: “I like the simplicity of the songs,” he relates. “They have good melodies, accessible harmony and good rhythm. Kendrick has a knack for doing that.”

As Smith says, “Kendrick and Reuben have two of the best feels in the business.”

Scott spoke via Zoom from a hotel room in Padova, Italy, where he was on a short tour with Slovenian saxophonist Jure Pukl. The interview has been edited for clarity.

Allen Morrison: Why did you decide to make the Corridors album with a saxophone trio?

Kendrick Scott: Throughout the pandemic, collectively something was taken away from everybody. For me it was travel, playing music and being able to share my gift with people. … I was thinking about what was lost. My band Oracle is centered around guitar and piano. So I just wanted to take that away, and say, OK, how can I address this loss in musical form? A lot of this record is about that — facing those shadows I’ve been running from while I’m out here on the road and having fun.

When we think of “corridors,” we normally think of transience. But in my New York apartment, I have a long hallway. The album is named after that. ... [During lockdown] this place of transience became a place of stagnation.

Morrison: And out of this feeling of stagnation came this creative outpouring.

Scott: Well, “a wall becomes a bridge,” which was the name of my last record. Sometimes it’s great for an artist to sit still and just make art. In the beginning, I wasn’t all that inspired, to be honest, but I was happy that Rio Sakairi from The Jazz Gallery commissioned me to write something, and I just pushed through it.

Morrison: You have said that on this record you wanted to “zoom out” from the personal and write from a more universal perspective.

Scott: With the first song, “What Day Is It?” I had to imagine everybody feeling that same funk that I was feeling, sitting in their apartments, having this “groundhog day” effect. … I wanted to create music that was for everybody, not just for me.

Morrison: How does that feeling manifest in the music? It could have been a slow, stuck-in-the-doldrums kind of song, but it’s not — it’s high-energy, frenetic.

Scott: I guess that’s my personality: On the outside I’m very mellow, but, inside, my brain is going 100 miles a minute.

Morrison: So do you consider this your “pandemic album”?

Scott: Yeah, it turned out to be that. It’s funny — I was thinking it was gonna be something else. It just came this way. Everything I had written down — I did none of it. [laughs]

Morrison: The album has a strong, sad theme in “One Door Closes, One Door Opens.” Did that beautiful, sad melody come out of your experience of lockdown in New York? What was your life like during that time?

Scott: I pretty much stayed in my apartment in Harlem. I was paranoid about leaving. The blessing was I had some work teaching at Manhattan School of Music, via Zoom. For a while, teaching was one of my only connections to the world. It was amazing to work with my students, but it was also a little maddening because I knew exactly what each day would be like.

I never had a nine-to-five before. It was really weird for me. My ritual was walking every morning to Riverbank Park, going up to the lighthouse and coming back, trying to get my mind right for the day, then teaching most of the day. And practicing — my neighbors heard a lot of drums during the pandemic.

Morrison: This was in early 2020?

Scott: Yes. Oracle had just finished our first European tour. We came back just before the pandemic hit. I didn’t leave home after that — my mother forbade me! [laughs] I hardly left the apartment until the summer of 2021, when I did a tour of Europe.

Morrison: Was it a challenge to work without one of your beloved chordal instruments?

Scott: For me the challenge was providing the emotion that chords and harmony bring into the music. When you hear the harmony, it makes [the emotion] so evident. Aaron Parks calls it “invisible cinema” [the title of the pianist’s Blue Note Records debut]. I always think about that when I play. How can I set the stage, think cinematically? As a drummer in a band without chordal instruments, I feel I have to set the stage even more. What does harmony sound like when it’s not there? That’s what I’m trying to create in this band.

Morrison: It helps to have partners on tonal instruments who can really suggest the harmony.

Scott: Right. What happens in chordless groups is that a veil is taken off. You can actually hear what Reuben is playing, and what Walter is playing in a different light. Once you remove that veil you start to appreciate each instrument in a different way. It’s like this new treasure that you found, but it’s been there the whole time.

Morrison: They say there’s no place to hide in a duo; but the same is true in a chordless trio.

Scott: Absolutely. I listened to so many chordless groups, like Sonny Rollins, Ornette [Coleman]. I really loved Joe Lovano’s “Trio Fascination” with Elvin [Jones].

Morrison: Did you write differently knowing that it would just be the three of you?

Scott: In some ways, yes; in some ways, no. All of the melodic pieces [usually] just come to me, and I just sing them, like “One Door Opens, Another Closes.” The song “A Voice Through The Door” came to me while I was in the shower. I stopped the water, grabbed my phone, and I just sang it. Afterward, I said — “Whoa! That’s a whole tune!”

Hopefully, you write a great enough melody and song that it could work in any type of group. Other tunes took more time. With “What Day Is It?” I was thinking, what would it feel like to write more rhythmically — to write a song without harmony?

Morrison: Yet it’s not devoid of harmony.

Scott: Right, not at all. It’s still there. It definitely has a key center and all that. It’s interesting for me to explore how far my compositional skills will take me versus my talent at drumming. My drumming is up here [gestures with one hand at the top of his head], and my compositional skills are down here [places the other hand near his chin]. And it’s like, “C’mon, man, we can do it!” [laughs]

Morrison: Were any of the songs written for a larger group, then adapted for the trio?

Scott: No, they were all written for the trio. I did think about my voice, though. I don’t think of my voice like “I’m the singer in the band.” I think of it as a texture. I use it intermittently — it adds another element to the band, kind of a haunting element. I don’t want my voice to be out front because I hate my voice. But [mixed down low] it gives some insight into the way I’m hearing music and the vibe I’d like to create.

Morrison: It’s very effective and original — I can’t think of any other drummers who do that.

Scott: I can’t do my “Jamieson Ross,” so I’ll just hum in the background. [laughs]

Morrison: Some of the songs are quite singable. Is it important to you to write melodies that can be sung?

Scott: Yes. That’s probably the most important thing out of everything: I always want somebody to go home singing it. The earworm. Pat Metheny said there are books for rhythm and harmony, but not for melody.

Morrison: In his 2009 New York Times piece “Five Drummers to Watch,” jazz critic Ben Ratliff described your compositions as “slow-moving, harmonically sophisticated, twice-removed pop.” Do you agree with that description of your songs?

Scott: I was just watching an interview with Billy Hart [in which he says] we just have these categories. We call it “pop music” because we don’t have any other words to describe it. Ear-worms … OK, that’s what I’m trying to write. So I take that as a compliment. I have this saying, “Simplicity breeds complexity.”

Morrison: Your previous albums were produced by [bassist/composer] Derrick Hodge. Now you’re producing yourself for the first time — what was that like?

Scott: Derrick was the best producer. He’s my brother and helped me solidify my vision. Why now? This time I wanted to do it more spontaneously, and it was a back-to-basics record. I didn’t need that much direction. It was really freeing.

Morrison: When you put out A Wall Becomes A Bridge, you spoke about overcoming insecurities. Was that still an issue with this new album?

Scott: It’s always an issue. I decided to talk about it more. I’m in therapy. You have to use that. And teaching is interesting. The more you teach, the more you have to dig deepesr and tell people the truth. It’s about overcoming fears, not denying them. You use those bricks in the wall to create the bridge. And the music is also therapy. I have a lot of mantras I use, but the main one is “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.” I’m always asking myself, “Am I being a catalyst for change?” DB



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June 2023
James Brandon Lewis
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