After nearly five decades as a working musician, bassist/composer Tom Kennedy has collected more than his fair share of stories: colorful tales of life on the road, encounters and friendships with some of the most renowned names in contemporary jazz, sights and sounds from across the globe. With his sixth album as a leader, Stories, Kennedy shares his musical impressions of those captivating tales, bringing along a host of the stellar artists with whom he shares such indelible experiences.
Stories, due out June 11, 2021 via Autumn Hill Records, marks the first release in Kennedy’s, well, storied career consisting entirely of the bass great’s original compositions. Each piece was written during Kennedy’s travels, serving as an audio scrapbook and providing musical snapshots of tours through Australia, China, Europe and the U.S. while on the road with longtime collaborators like Mike Stern, Lee Ritenour and Dave Grusin.
To breathe life into these new pieces, Kennedy enlisted lifelong St. Louis friends Dave Weckl and Roger Guth (drums) and Jay Oliver (keyboards), along with some of the brilliant players whose paths he’s crossed along the way: trumpeter Randy Brecker; saxophonists Gary Meek, Bill Evans and Ada Rovatti; percussionist Roger Squitero; guitarist Mike Stern; and violinist Sarina Suno.
“Stories encompasses so many different things to me,” Kennedy explains. “It's all about the places and the people that were involved in it. When I listen to one of these songs I can see a vision from the place where I was when I was writing that song, or I get a sense of the smell of the hotel or the venue. They're very personal memories. It's like emotional GPS.”
The sound of Stories is intimately tied to the method of its creation. For the first time, Kennedy didn’t write his tunes sitting in front of a keyboard at home or in the studio. Instead, he used his laptop to compose on the move, entering ideas directly into Pro Tools while on a tour bus, backstage at a venue waiting to perform, or whiling away the hours between gigs in hotel rooms.
“Dave [Weckl] and I were traveling with Mike Stern in China,” Kennedy recalls of the album’s genesis with its lyrical title track. “I remember we were in the van on the way to the next city and this little harmonic idea came into my head. It’s much too cumbersome to carry a keyboard around, so I just got out my laptop and started working in the car. Then when I got to the hotel I was like a mad scientist in my room the rest of the evening. By the end of the day I had the song pretty much worked out. I ended up writing the entire record that way.”
Of course, the disruption of constant travel, the responsibilities of each night’s concert and the buzz of activity at venues means constant distraction, but Kennedy found that to be inspiring rather than detracting. “At home, everybody shuts up and leaves me alone,” he says. “I'm in a very controlled situation, working in a very methodical way. Here, I had people bustling all around me, the stage is being set up or I'm being bounced around in the back of the van – all kinds of crazy things. But that definitely brought a lot of spirit to the music.”
That spirit is vibrantly evoked from the outset, with the rollicking opener “Hurry Up!” Kennedy wrote the track with Weckl in mind, and called in veteran big band trumpeter Nick Marchione to add a brass section inspired by the longtime bandmates’ roots in big band music. “The three of us – Dave, Jay and I – grew up playing and listening to and loving big band music. We were all big Buddy Rich fans, I was a big Stan Kenton fan, and Jay actually played in Maynard Ferguson's band when he was a kid. So that music was in our blood, and ‘Hurry Up!’ reflects that idea.”
The same idea applies to the album’s funky closing cut, “BB’s Blues.” The song is named for the St. Louis club BB’s Jazz, Blues and Soups, one of the venues where a young Tom Kennedy cut his teeth in the music alongside his brother, the late pianist Ray Kennedy. While still in St. Louis, the two would back musicians traveling through town, learning valuable lessons on the bandstand beside such legends as Sonny Stitt, James Moody and Freddie Hubbard.
Along with the sights, sounds and scents of the places Kennedy found himself during the writing of the album, the bassist found deep inspiration in the compositions of the brilliant bandleaders with whom he was touring as well as collaborators from the past. “Elements” is his most direct acknowledgment of that, incorporating bits and pieces from the music of Stern, Ritenour, Grusin and the Brecker brothers and melding them into something wholly his own. “The ’70s” flashes back to the most formative period in Kennedy’s musical life, drawing on the heavy funk of Parliament/Funkadelic and Graham Central Station.
The profoundly grooving “Jacket,” along with several other tunes on the record, shows off the telepathic hook-up forged by Kennedy, Weckl, Oliver and Meek during their years in the Dave Weckl Band, a connection recently reprised at a 2019 jazz festival in Kennedy’s native St. Louis at the behest of Autumn Hill founders Rob and Michael Silverman. The appearances of Randy Brecker and his wife, saxophonist Ada Rovatti, also harken back to Kennedy’s tenure in Steps Ahead with the late, iconic Michael Brecker.
The title of “Simple Song” should be preceded by the word “deceptively,” as it’s far from easy to conjure such an instantly memorable melody or evoke such joyous spirited playing from a band. And “Altitude” earns its soaring sobriquet from the taut rhythms of Kennedy and Guth and a buoyant, skyscraping turn from saxophonist Bill Evans.
All of those names are vitally important to the sound of Stories. While the compositions themselves offer remembrances of times and places, the album is stunningly realized by incredible musicians crafting vivid new memories in the moment. “The reason Stories allowed me to embrace the music as much as I have is because I embrace the relationships I've made with these people,” Kennedy says. “Musically, they're the standard by which everything is judged; but when you get to know them you realize it’s the same personally: they're the most incredibly inspiring, warm, giving people on the planet. That played into the sensitivity and freedom in the music.”
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