Kendrick Scott At The ‘Height of Optimism’

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​Drummer Kendrick Scott wrestles with self-doubt on his latest album, A Wall Becomes A Bridge (Blue Note).

(Photo: Todd Cooper)

On an unseasonably warm May night in Portland, Oregon, members of Oracle, the post-bop quintet led by drummer Kendrick Scott, are having a bit of a tough time.

It’s the last stop on a short U.S. tour in support of the ensemble’s recently released album, A Wall Becomes A Bridge, an occasion that usually finds a road-tight band playing with panache and confidence. But packed awkwardly onto the undersized stage at The Jack London Revue, the five performers are dealing with a chatty crowd and onstage sound issues. About halfway through the set, bassist Joe Sanders leaves the stage and walks through the crowd to have a terse word with the club’s sound engineer.

“[The stage] is his sanctuary,” Scott said. “So, when you mess with that, he gets a little upset.”

Despite the visible annoyance at the situation and the bemused looks bandmembers were giving one another about it, Oracle powers through. Renditions of tunes from A Wall are lucid and sharp, blending post-rock atmospherics with sliding rhythms and some particularly sparkling solos from pianist Taylor Eigsti and guitarist Mike Moreno.

As for Scott, although his name is on the reader board at the top of the stairs and it’s primarily his material that the band is playing, he takes on a supportive role, laying into grooves and triggering the spoken-word samples that open many of the songs. He plays around the melodies being drawn out by his bandmates with cymbal hits and quick fills. What he doesn’t do is take a splashy solo of his own: Not once during the 90-minute set does he yank the spotlight to his side of the stage.

“I feel that I play my best, honestly, when I’m playing behind the band,” Scott said over the phone a few days after the Portland gig. While the rest of Oracle traveled back home, the bandleader headed to the University of Oregon in Eugene to lead some drumming workshops. “I feel like I can shape and shade things in a way that is even more effective than soloing. Funnily enough, that’s one of my insecurities: playing drum solos. It’s something that I’m working on building, but I’m also working on trying to showcase the way I play within a song.”

Scott has been talking about his insecurities a lot during the past few months. The story of A Wall’s creation has everything to do with how full of self-doubt the 38-year-old musician was as he looked to write material for a new album. Despite being a noted bandleader and someone who’s spent time playing alongside legends like Charles Lloyd and Terence Blanchard, Scott wrestled with the pressure of creating something perfect and brilliant for Oracle. He would start a song and then get too far into his head about it, and never finish it. Or it simply wouldn’t sound good enough.

“I think it came from the volume of things that I’m around,” Scott said of his insecurities. “I’m around such great musicians and great artists that make the extraordinary ordinary, that I felt like I had to be that. I had to write or bandlead like this person or I wasn’t doing anything.”

It was his former Oracle bandmate, current producer and friend Derrick Hodge, who helped pull him out of that spiral and set him on a path that resulted in A Wall. And it was with a perfectly simple idea: Use those same insecurities as fuel for creativity. Make the music about being unable to make music.

“Derek was such a catalyst,” Scott recalled. “He said, ‘You know, we have to trust this process and know that, first of all, you all are great musicians and something good can come out of it.’ He funneled my insecurities into creating this music.”

A huge part of that was relinquishing some control of the album and handing it over to his bandmates. Of the 12 tracks on the album, Scott was the sole composer on fewer than half. On the rest, he shares credit with his bandmates or wasn’t responsible for the writing at all. The majority of A Wall was conceived in the studio, working with fragments the bandleader brought with him or just built from scratch.

“We went about making a record in a different way than jazz records are made,” Scott asserted. “Usually, everybody has everything written down and you go into the studio for a few hours and you leave. [Oracle] spent days in the studio trying to capture the intention of what we were doing. We set up a chalkboard and we wrote down, ‘OK, what does acceptance feel like? What does denial feel like?’ And we went after each of those pieces, trying to see how they fit into the narrative. I think that’s the beauty of the way this record went.”

The music that Scott and Oracle came away with has a lushness that also marked the group’s 2015 release, We Are The Drum, but approached from a postmodern angle with shades of ’70s ECM classics. The lyrical ballad “>>>>>>Becoming” sets a low heat for Eigsti and reedist John Ellis’ spiraling melodies, until it becomes a minimalist stride blues. And tracks like “>>>>>>>>>>>Mocean” and “>>>>The Catalyst” build like waves, cresting and receding into sprays of pixels and smears of sound.

Perhaps the most crucial step toward the completion of A Wall was trusting the musical mind of turntablist and producer Jani Sundance to add some finishing touches. The L.A.-based musician, best known as a touring DJ for artists like Meshell Ndegeocello and Robert Glasper, was given many of the almost-completed tracks by Scott and wound in vocal samples and little flourishes that warped elements of the original Oracle performances. Those subtle treatments broke some psychedelic sunshine through Oracle’s sometimes dense, cloudy playing.

“Sometimes with a DJ, they put something down and you play on top of it,” Scott said. “But Jahi can respond in the moment like a true musician. That’s why we sent the music to him. We knew he would be able to find the spaces that were pertinent in getting the message across. He added just enough—not so much that it took away from the sound and intention of my band.”

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