Will Kennedy is sitting idly in his car in the dusty parking lot of a casual restaurant in southeastern Texas. Despite the artificial attractiveness of the manicured suburban landscape around him – the very embodiment of the American Dream – his gaze is pointed downward, away from the light streaming through the windshield and into the darkness below the dashboard.
This is, admittedly, a strange position for someone behind the wheel. But Kennedy is striking an all-too-familiar pose in the 21st century: the distracted digital operator. (Good thing the car is parked.) With neck tucked and eyes locked, he flicks at the glowing screen of his mobile phone, transfixed by lines of text as they whiz by. The keys hang limply from the ignition.
Nope, nothing important today.
At this time of year – right around election season – much of the United States is too cold to sit with the windows down. But this is Katy, a satellite city of Houston that Kennedy now calls home, and the average temperature in the winter is the rough equivalent to what is experienced further north in the spring. It’s the perfect weather to let the breeze seep into the car.
Out of the blue, a woman that Kennedy has never met walks up to the window and peers in.
“I feel like I should introduce myself.”
She pauses, then smiles.
“I’m the other Democrat in the neighborhood.”
Kennedy pauses, searching for something to say. How on Earth did she know that?
Oh, right. The Obama 2012 sticker on the back bumper.
“Oh, wow, nice to meet you.” They both laugh at the awkward moment.
And that’s when William Kennedy realizes he’s not in California anymore.
In his decade-and-a-half of drumming for famed jazz-fusion quartet Yellowjackets, Will Kennedy’s mantra has always been this: Create moments that take people places.
That is certainly what the 53-year-old is hoping he has done with his playing on the band’s new album, A Rise In The Road, which consists of ten new songs and features a fresh face on bass: Felix Pastorius, son of the late (and legendary) Weather Report bassist Jaco Pastorius. It is no small matter to change 25 percent of any band, never mind one that is 33 years old. But Kennedy is buzzing about the potential to break new ground.
“There’s fear involved – replacing a founding member, that big footprint of sound. What do you do? We didn’t do a big cattle call, but we played with a few guys. Felix stood out. We’re so glad, so happy that we captured him. He’s been a wonderful addition to our band and our sound. He brings a youthful spirit that is really wonderful to have, and that commitment to being a musician and character of sound is just an honor to see and experience.”
In this way, A Rise In The Road is aptly named: the personnel change represents both a challenge and a chance at something new for this veteran group of musicians, which includes pianist Russell Ferrante and saxophonist Bob Mintzer. Little did the band know of the fortune that would come when it first set out on this road in 1981; more than three decades and 22 albums later, its members are preparing to turn yet another corner in pursuit of new adventures.
A Rise In The Road chronicles that moment of transformation: personally, professionally, and, most importantly given the nature of the change, sonically. Nowhere is that more evident than in Kennedy’s drum playing.
“It’s a snapshot of time of our interpretation of these new songs. Some of them were really challenging in terms of creating groove and shape to them, and others were easier to fall into and play and have fun. It’s cool to create a project like that, that has some stretching going on, pushing the envelope in terms of musicality and groove but kick back and enjoy a shuffle.”
The Jackets, as they call themselves, aren’t interested in duplicating past projects, and for the new album, its members composed new songs with the clear intent of going in new directions. They got what they asked for: one such tune, “An Informed Decision,” carries a 4/4 time signature but has phrasing on top in 11. The song was written by Ferrante, and its structure initially perplexed the rest of the seasoned musicians in the group.
“It was just an enormous puzzle to find a groove. It’s an interesting Yellowjackets challenge because we’re always excited about a strong melody. That’s really important for us; we want that to be the statement of the song. It’s not about the groove so much as the content of the melody. And here we are with a song with such a technical base, with a great melody. So what do you do to support that melody and create that emotional arc in the song?”
To create that experience, Kennedy stripped the song down to its component parts using a tiny drum kit in Ferrante’s garage in Los Angeles. First, he laid down a basic 4/4 beat so that his bandmates could work their way through their parts. “I found that it was important to lay a bed for them to get comfortable.” Once they internalized the underlying structure of the song, Kennedy cued up Ferrante’s original demo for the song, which Ferrante had composed in Apple’s Logic Pro software without drum programming. Then Kennedy just went at it, tackling its many nuances right there in rehearsal.
“It turned out to be a kind of funk-based groove that supports the 4 but implies the 11. As I began to shed with it, I started by playing a backbeat of the 4 and using the bass drum to catch the hits of the 11. That helped me evolve to a groove that did not have the backbeat – though at the end, the vamp of the song, I brought the backbeat back to fade it out. It’s a loose, jazzy funk groove.”
In hindsight, it seemed to take him only a moment.
Drums Pearl (Reference, Masters Premium, or Masters MCX series)
1 22" x 18" Bass Drum
2 14" x 6.5" Snare Drum
3 12" x 8" Tom
4 14" x 14" Floor Tom
5 16" x 16" Floor Tom
A 14" A Custom Hi-Hat
B 16" A Custom Crash
C 20" K Custom Dry Ride
D 17" A Custom Crash
E 18" A Custom Crash
Will Kennedy also uses Pearl Eliminator chain-drive single pedal, Pro-Mark Will Kennedy 5A signature wood-tip and MJZ5 Jazz Cafe sticks, and Evans heads (Clear EC2 tom batters, G1 tom resos, ST Dry snare, and EMAD2 bass)