Sunday, June 19, 2016


In a recent interview with this blog, jazz guitarist Randy Napoleon asserted that jazz is in good hands with the current generation of up-and-comers. As a professor of jazz at Michigan State University, Napoleon would certainly know that because he’s helping develop future swingers. If you want some hard evidence that Napoleon knows what the hell he’s talking about, I implore you to get “Rootless,” a self-produced debut album by MSU grad pianist Corey Kendrick.  Kendrick, 31, is a native of Iowa, who left a good paying secure job in Iowa, moved his family to Michigan, studied jazz at MSU, and he’s presently raising holy hell in Detroit as a go-to pianist, composer, and bandleader.

At MSU Kendrick earned a Master’s in Jazz Studies. Jimmy Cobb, Etienne Charles, Jon Faddis, Christian McBride, and Jeff Hamilton are some of the high-end bandleaders Kendrick has performed with. “Rootless,” is a good of a debut you’re likely to hear this year. It has eleven cuts, three standards, and eight originals. There’s beauty at every turn. Kendrick is a dynamic interpreter of standards, proven on the oldies “Nature Boy,” and “In The Wee Small Hours”. His chops are in full bloom on originals such as “Alone In Michigan,” and “Lullaby For A New Mother”.  

Kendrick’s obvious influences are the late greats Bill Evans, and Kenny Kirkland. If they’re around to hear the meticulously wrought music on “Rootless” they’d blush. A big reason the album is a winner is the terrific playing from Kendrick’s  partner's bassist Joe Vasquez, and drummer Nick Bracewell. I Dig Jazz finally tore away from “Rootless” long enough to pick Kendrick’s brain about the album, and the challenges of building a name for himself in a jazz metropolis known for producing many of the planet’s greatest jazz pianists.

Is “Rootless” your mission statement?

The album is reflective of a very specific period of my life.  Before deciding to go back to school in 2013, my wife and I had a house in Iowa with a thirty-year mortgage and we were both at the kind of jobs where we could see spending the next 25, 30, 35 years and then retiring. I thought I could work a day job and play music here and there on nights and weekends, but I was away from music too much.  So we decided to take a risk, go back to school, get my Masters’ and pursue music full-time.  The material on this record is my attempt to put a lot of those feelings into music, loneliness, anxiety, new experiences, new friendships, joy, and new roots.  It’s an album about life in transition.

After listening to just a few cuts, I was convinced you’ve spent many man-hours dissecting Bill Evans’s, Oscar Peterson’s and Kenny Kirkland’s chops. Was either pianist big influences?

It’s hard to say definitively who my biggest influences are because sometimes it feels like that changes from week to week, but they were huge early influences, and I feel like that’s shaped my musical tastes in a big way.  I think, above all other things, I value swing and lyricism/melodicism.  And it’s hard to get more swinging than Oscar Peterson or more lyrical than Bill Evans.

Kenny Kirkland has been an influence, and one of my more recent influences. He was such a monster musician, just an incredible pianist and he wrote some gorgeous tunes. Rhythmically, he would play with odd note groupings, groups of 5's, 7's, etc.

Harmonically, he would play chords that aren't easily defined in terms of traditional Major 7th/Minor 7th/, etc. And compositionally, he wrote such beautiful, interesting tunes. And these are all things I've tried to take from him. I've spent so much time with his 1991 self-titled album. There are certain albums that, to me, are like secret handshakes. They don't make traditional Top 10, 50, 100 lists, but I know that, if you like that album, we're going to be friends. Kenny's album fits into that category.

Did you design “Rootless” to be representative of everything you have to offer the planet musically at this formative stage of your career?

Definitely, quite a few of the tunes started as exercises to work on different musical challenges I was facing with the intent of stretching me in uncomfortable directions.  But by setting a deadline it was a challenge to me to play some of these uncomfortable forms, harmonies, time signatures, and try to rise to the occasion.  I’m looking forward to playing the material live. We have about six or seven dates booked right now, and seeing how they continue to develop.

“Alone In Michigan,” “Julian’s Tune,” and “Lullaby For A New Mother” are songs on the album likely to get played over and over. Can you explain what you were going through when you wrote those songs?

“Alone In Michigan” was written over a particularly lonely weekend.  We hadn’t been living in Michigan long, and I was out on tour over the weekend, so my wife went home to visit her family and took our dog with her.  I returned late to an empty house with no wife and no dog, and I didn’t know very many people yet, so I was trying to capture that feeling of being alone in an unfamiliar place. 

“Julian’s Tune” is a little more academic.  It started as a sketch from another MSU student, Julian Velasco, who is a fantastic jazz and classical saxophonist.  He showed me a tune he was working on, and I loved the first couple chords and asked him if I could borrow them to write something.  I was listening to a lot of Kenny Kirkland at the time, and there’s a beautiful tune by Kenny called 

“Dienda” and I wanted to write something similar, a lyrical waltz with a bit of a “classical” sound. 
 Often in jazz, we use 4 and 8-bar phrases to the point where it becomes expected, but there are a couple of spots in “Dienda” where Kenny uses 5-bar phrases, and by lengthening the phrases, it adds so much drama because the tune just feels like it hangs there, waiting for something to happen.  I’d thought of using melody or harmony for drama, but not form.  So I wanted to write something incorporating all those elements, and I owe a debt to Kenny and Julian.

“Lullaby For A New Mother” is a tune that’s special to me.  It was written last. The trio recorded the record in November of last year, and my son was born just two months prior, in September.  I was sitting at the piano one night not long before the session, and from the bench, I could see my wife and son on the couch.  

The way she was looking down at him, and he back up at her, was so touching.  I wanted to write something that tried to capture that sweetness, but also the full range of emotions experienced as a new parent, especially in those first months.  So it starts out sweet, but by the very end, it’s swung around to the fraught, nervous energy that was characteristic of that period.

Nick Bracewell, Corey Kendrick, and Joe Vasquez
Drummer Nick Bracewell and bassist Joe Vasquez are amazing on “Rootless”. Give some insight on their overall contribution musically and otherwise to this terrific album.

Well, firstly, they’re just fantastic musicians.  When I thought about recording an album, they were the first two people who came to mind.  Joe just finished his Master’s at MSU, studying with bassist Rodney Whitaker, and Nick just finished the first year of his Master’s at MSU as well. I met both of them about three years ago, and the great thing about studying music at a college is how much playing you get to do.  I’d say the three of us probably played together 3 or 4 times a week in one context or another, for two years, and that’s an experience that is becoming rarer now. 

The days of the six-month club residency or even the one or two-week long club engagements seem to have mostly gone, and there’s something a group develops over an extended time playing together. 

You develop a set of musical gestures, a shorthand, and a mutual understanding.  As a result, there were very few fixes that were needed once we went into the studio – for the most part, we were able to play it all live.  Plus, they’re both good friends, and I feel like that adds another dimension to the music. You end up looking forward to a gig as much for the hang as the music.

How supportive has the Detroit jazz community been of your aspirations as a jazz musician?

So many people who I’ve met here have been hugely supportive.  There’s such a strong tradition of mentorship in Detroit.  Rodney Whitaker always talks about “reach one teach one,” and I’ve found that to be true of so many musicians I’ve met here, very giving of their time and always open to talk about music.  It was very evident at the Kenn Cox tribute last year at the Carr Center.  To hear Rodney and Shahida Nurullah talk about Kenn’s mentorship, and then to see the work they’ve done in the Detroit music community, and to see that pass through generations is a beautiful thing.  It becomes evident why there is so much great music in Detroit.

What are some of the challenges you face as a jazz pianist establishing a name for yourself in Detroit where greats such as Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, Geri Allen, Teddy Harris Jr., Harold McKinney, Hank Jones, and Gary Schunk set the bar?

Because of the tradition of mentorship, so many amazing musicians have come out of Detroit.  Of course, it’s a challenge when I compare myself to these greats, but it’s also very inspiring having such strong models to aspire to.  Though it may feel like a challenge at times, I think it pushes me to try to play at a higher level.  

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