Will Kennedy: Making Moments

will kennedy

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.

Embracing Change

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.

will kennedy

Kennedy's Kit

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

Cymbals Zildjian
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)

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Keeping Up With Big Brother

Will Kennedy sat behind his first drum set at age five, in the modest home in which he grew up in Oakland, California. His parents were not musicians, but his father had a sizable record collection and a passion for playing music at all hours. It was enough to perk up young Will’s ears.

“We were hearing music at all times in the house. Big band stuff, smaller trios, classical music, country western – the whole gamut. It was a really great school for us. Even before I knew what jazz was, I was rolling with that sound.”

This, of course, was a time of great transition for music, from the prim sounds of the 1950s to the increasingly looser tones of the 1960s. Fond memories of Count Basie playing “April In Paris” were soon replaced by something decidedly funkier. Those early years left a massive impression on Will and his older brother Hershall.

Tony Williams and The New Lifetime. Billy Cobham’s Spectrum. And the funk – Parliament Funkadelic, Sly And The Family Stone, Tower Of Power – I had the best of both worlds.”

With six years on Will, Hershall began mastering the keyboard. (He is now a well-known multi-instrumentalist for funk outfit Graham Central Station.) The younger Kennedy was forced to keep up on the drum set.

“Supporting my brother as he played keyboards was a great challenge. He being older than me, I had to be on my toes to keep up with him. It pushed me. I had the desire to be pushed and keep up. We would write songs, learn songs from other artists, and countless hours of jamming.

“We had the police called a few times. We got to know those guys.”

So began Kennedy’s first drum lessons, and a series of formative experiences that gave him the vocabulary and tools to be confident on the throne. At age nine, Kennedy began taking formal lessons, getting an education on rudiments, note values, and the drummer’s role in a band of musicians.

“Playing an instrument that could be considered the loudest, how is it that I could affect the performance by doing the opposite of that, arc the emotion of the song by using dynamics? Discovering things like that. Those types of things evolved in my mind.”

In a flash of entrepreneurialism, Kennedy turned his brisk skills progress into a position in the house band of a local club. It was his first taste of music not just as a hobby, but as a career. “It was like, ’Oh, wow, I can get paid for this!’ Up until then it was just fun and games, something that Hershall and I did to have fun. I realized that this is really an art, a profession, to get good at and leave a legacy and a mark on the industry.”

Kennedy fondly recalls playing at the Keystone Korner jazz club in San Francisco with his brother. “Born in 1960, I wasn’t conscious of Coltrane and Miles. I wasn’t old enough to see them then. But they were appearing there often. When I discovered that playing drums could turn into a career, in my teens, we started playing there. It was awesome. The Doobie Brothers, Kenny Loggins … a wide variety of artists would come and play. There was just a great community of musicians from the Oakland-Richmond-Berkeley—San Francisco area.”

Given such support, Hershall’s career began to blossom in the 1970s – he went on to join Graham Central Station after founder Larry Graham left Sly And The Family Stone – and shortly thereafter, so did Will’s. In the ensuing years, Will undertook more practice, played more gigs, and acquired plenty of chops all around the San Francisco Bay Area.

But he was still a young man, in awe of his elders. Nowhere was that more apparent at his first drum clinic, held sometime in the late 1970s, at the well-known shop Drum World, then in San Francisco.

Sharing the session with him? Some guy 14 years his senior named Dave Garibaldi. From a hugely successful band called Tower Of Power that Kennedy may or may not have used to listen to as a kid. No pressure!

“I was nervous as a puppy. I didn’t really know what really to say or do, other than to be myself and share techniques. Watching David do his presentation was a great learning experience and he just had a ton of techniques and approaches to share. We all went to school watching him do that clinic.”

Even as he absorbed Garibaldi’s chops, Kennedy was terrified. What was he supposed to say? To do? Should he get up there on stage and just play? Should he take questions? At a young age, Kennedy had the equivalent of a master’s degree in drum technique, but he was still in grade school when it came to the art of giving a presentation. He gave it his all anyway.

“The reaction was very positive, if I remember correctly. The advantage of having enough playing time under my belt to confidently deliver a performance and shape a solo and take people on a musical journey behind the kit, that’s what saved me through my nervousness.”

In other words, he made some moments.

By 1986, Kennedy was a Bay Area fixture, and that’s when he was asked to audition for the five-year-old band Yellowjackets. He aced it. Replacing founding drummer Ricky Lawson, Kennedy redirected the band’s funky inflections toward a more swinging, rocking path. The following year, the band recorded and released its album, Four Corners. It would be a milestone that set in motion a string of Grammy-winning recordings for the band and clarified to the industry at large what “jazz fusion” was – and ought to be.

will kennedy

Forever The Seeker

So, how does a guy who’s been playing in the same band for years keep it fresh? That’s the question on Will Kennedy’s mind as he embarks on yet another tour. The Yellowjackets have already been preparing with the occasional show here and there, but with A Rise In The Road to support, they will certainly be playing well into 2014.

“This is a gig you’ve got to shed for. If there’s a span of time where we’re off – like right now, three weeks of downtime – before the next run of dates, I’ll listen to some of the music and if not, go into the practice room and put the phones on and play along or just play a bit. Just to remember who I am.”

Despite the improvisational tendencies that the band embraces on the road, the need to serve the song is always top of mind for Kennedy. He remembers when he was a session musician in Los Angeles, recording drum parts for film soundtracks. The exacting experience informs his expressive, free-flowing playing today.

“When you’re hired for a movie date, in certain situations the producer desires you to come to that place of maximum content and contribution to what he’s written right away. He wants you to arrive in that place as quickly as possible, because he has a 100-piece orchestra waiting in the lobby and 20 scenes to record for. You’re in that seat, the music is going and the chart is in front of you. You’re looking at a very vague roadmap of the music you’re playing, and it’s on you to contribute the emotion and peaks and valleys. Sometimes you have specific things to play, other times he’ll give you direction. It’s nerve-wracking. Millions of dollars are being spent. If you blow it, there are 20 other guys lined up to fill what you couldn’t do. There are some butterflies in your stomach. You have to be confident enough to make a moment.”

Still, there are risks in mastering this moment-making – like boredom, or stagnation. With so many Yellowjackets shows under his belt, how does a veteran like Kennedy keep from falling into a rut? Simple: He tries to recognize, then actively avoid, old habits wherever possible.

“Through a couple of recordings, in some of the Latin tunes, I found myself playing similar ride cymbal patterns. It shows up on the gig, too. Once you line up those tunes next to each other [on a set list], it’s ’Oh, man, I played the same ride cymbal pattern on that tune two years ago as the one I just did!’ It’s almost shocking.”

To combat this, Kennedy seeks out new approaches to his instrument. He recalls the 1997 Yellowjackets song “Capetown,” from the band’s Blue Hats album, which is based on a 6/8 groove nicknamed “Magabu” that he borrowed from the West African country of Cameroon, courtesy of native musician Paul Tchounga. The moment Kennedy heard the groove, he couldn’t resist.

“I met Paul at a gig somewhere; he was playing. I talked with him for a while and realized he was from another place. We exchanged numbers and kept in contact. We got together one afternoon with two drum sets. We’re jamming, and he suddenly fell into this groove. I had a [Sony] Walkman at the time, and I asked him, ’Man, what is that, what are you playing?’ Where is the 1?’

“He showed me, and I recorded it, but I still couldn’t grasp playing it. It’s very angular and syncopated, yet has this floaty, bouncy feel about it that’s really cool. I ended up showing it to our pianist, Russell. He fell in love with it, and we ended up writing this song.

“Like with any syncopated groove, every groove has a pulse, a heartbeat. Once you can discover what its root pulse is, you can discover where the other limbs fall in relationship to that. I had to internalize the foundation of the 6/8 with accents on 1 and 4 before I could add the hi-hat part and bass drum part.”

Kennedy was so happy with how the final composition came out that he proudly notes Tchounga’s influence on it, even 16 years later. It’s all about switching it up and being open to new influences, he says.

“The important thing to remember is, bottom line, you can never know it all. There’s always something new to learn. Be a sponge; always be a sponge. Soak that stuff in and try to capture it. Even if you acquire a pattern that’s difficult, you can break it up and play parts and create variations. Simple things like that help keep things interesting.”

As interesting as the time you met what appeared to be the only other registered Democrat in Katy, Texas?

He just laughs.

“Here we are again, creating those moments.”