June 25, 2024


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Interview with Mark Kelso: Music, rhythm and I are connected on a deep level that cannot be separated: Video

Jazz interview with Jazz drummer Mark Kelso. An interview by email in writing.

JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Mark Kelso: – Hi Simon, first off, thanks for the interview. I was originally born in Belfast, Northern Ireland and then my family emigrated to Toronto, Canada when I was 9 years old. My Father played drums in an Irish “Show band” called the Witnesses so I was always around music and drumming as a young child and that’s what probably got me interested in music.

JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the drums?

MK: – My dad, being a drummer, was my first and main influence. He started teaching me around 12 years old and then I continued from there. My relatives in Belfast always talk about me being one of those typical kids who was always banging/beating on boxes, pots or whatever. Definitely a noisy kid ha ha.

JBN.S: – What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the drums?

MK: – As I mentioned, my Father was a huge influence on getting me started. He taught me about good technique, rudiments and how to play different styles. Having him get me initially into Jazz was very important. After that I really studied the work of Buddy Rich, Graham Lear (w/Gino Vannelli) David Garibaldi and Steve Gadd. I learned a ton from listening to those 4 players in my formative years. After that, my high school music teachers became a big influence. Paul Miner, in grade 10, helped me define my big band playing which forced me how to read and interpret charts. Lou Bartolomucci, in grade 11 & 12, really helped steer me towards a more modern Jazz/Funk/Fusion/small group approach. After that I went to Humber College and studied with Roger Flock (who’s job I actually took over 13 years ago when he retired) and Don Vickery. After that, Rick Lazar and Memo Acevado opened up the wonderful world of African, Brazilian and Afro-Cuban drumming to me, which I just fell in love with. I would also say that I’m self-studied to a certain degree but that I also learned something from pretty much every drummer I ever heard or saw.

JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

MK: – I guess my “sound” is the combination of all my influences. I liked too many musical genres to just stay in one place. I wanted to play it all so I approached music in the same manner that the late, great Bruce Lee approached all the different Martial Arts. He checked out the various forms and picked what he thought was useful and discarded what he thought was not effective. I looked towards learning musical styles in the same manner. Listening to as much music as I could definitely created a musical melting pot that defined my sound. You can probably still hear the influences creep in when I play sometimes. I also play Yamaha drums, Paiste cymbals, Headhunters drum sticks and Evans Heads which obviously also define my actual drum sound.

JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

MK: – I love doing my 20-30 bpm exercises with the metronome on the middle or last triplet. It’s really helped me clearly understand the placement of every note, where my time-feel is really at and it’s helped me to comprehend space and long gaps of silence. It almost becomes like a form a Zen meditation for me. Practicing slowly really helps to boost my focus as well. When playing fast, it’s easy to overlook flaws or to get by on adrenalin but slowing down gives you a wider perspective on rhythm and your relationship with it.

JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now?

MK: – When I write music I experiment with all different types of chords but I do have a love of the “Pop” sounding things like 6/9, sus 4th, major 9 chords, etc. You know, the pretty, happy sounding stuff but I still like the dissonance things like Major 7 flat 5 or 1,min2 and 5. I can see/hear the Yin and Yang of sound and write accordingly. It’s all sound to me.

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JBN.S: – What do you love most about your new album: MARK KELSO & THE JAZZ EXILES <Elementals>, how it was formed and what you are working on today. Next year your fans like we can wait for a new album?

MK: – With Elementals, I love listening to the musicianship of the players in the band (Rich Brown, Luis Denis, Jeremy Ledbetter & Joey Martel). Having played with them more this time around, I was able to write more specifically for how they play and that made this recording a little more personal. The recording itself was done in my home studio and I engineered and produced it. After that I went to a great engineer, Taylor Kernohan, to mix it.

A new recording? Well, I’m thinking of doing a Jazz trio one with Mike Downes and Brian Dickinson who I play around town with. I play more standards in this group and I also sing a bunch of tunes too. After that it’ll be Jazz Exiles 3, which seems to be taking a little more of an African rhythmic approach so far on some of the new tunes being written.

JBN.S: – Many aspiring musicians are always looking for advice when navigating thru the music business. Is there any piece of advice you can offer to aspiring students or even your peers that you believe will help them succeed and stay positive in this business?

MK: – Playing music is the most awesome thing in the world. Navigating the music business is the opposite. I would say don’t be ignorant of the system. Understand from the get go that it is hard road and it’s a lot of work. You have to be prepared with that knowledge going in or you will probably quit. There’s a lot of independent, non paid, never ending work involved but that’s what you gotta do in order to make a go of it. Gone are the days of being “discovered” so you really have to take up a lot of the work yourself. However, that’s mostly if you’re a bandleader though. Being a sideman in a group is still a lot less work.

The thing is, if you love it, you will stick with it and I think there’s a lot to be said for not giving up! Just keep doing it. There are a lot of unhappy people in the world who hate their jobs and can’t wait to retire. No musician ever wants to retire from playing as far as I can tell. I’m pretty sure I’ll look back on my life and be happy that I choose a career in music.

JBN.S: – Аnd furthermore, can jazz be a business today or someday?

MK: – As many musicians will tell you, it’s tough to be solely a Jazz artist. I play a lot of different styles of music with about 40 different groups, I teach full time at Humber College where I run the organization of 70-80 drum students and 9 drum instructors. I do sessions out of my home studio and I am the Artistic Director for the “Jazz Room” in Waterloo, ON. Plus I have a family with 2 small kids so it’s a bit hectic to make it all work but that’s what I do to keep it all going. I love music more than ever and am really grateful to have been able to do it as my job for this long.

I tell my students that the number one rule of investment is diversification and since they are investing in their careers and their future they need to know what diversification means. It’s how I navigate the business side of things. If you put your eggs all in one basket (one musical band or style) then you must understand that there will probably be less work opportunities. If you can do a lot of different things then you have more options to make money. Nothing against wanting to do one thing and be an artist at all – That’s totally fine too but it’s definitely a harder route.

JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

MK: – This is a tough question to answer. Back in the day, there were plenty of Jazz artists on TV so there was widespread exposure. Some TV shows even had Jazz bands as the house band so you would hear the music going in and out of commercial breaks. Jazz was still cool. However, as time marches on and things change, younger generations get into the music of their own youth and their own cultural landscape. En masse, peoples taste changes. I do think that young people who are musicians are still very interested in Jazz but that’s probably not the only thing they like.

Think about this as well, (excluding classical music, folkloric music and starting from the early 1900’s) young people in the 1950’s only had about 35 years of prior music to study or choose from. In the 1970’s it was 55 years of listening. Now there’s approx. 117 years worth of music to choose from and a lot of it comes from another century! Another century is probably not going to interest a 16 year old unless they realize how incredible some of that music was and still is. This reality will keep growing too and because of the demise of record companies controlling the musical landscape, everyone is listening to different things at different times so we’ve lost the old sense of community surrounding a “latest release” from whatever group that was popular. People used to all get the same recording and then everyone studied it and played it to death. The listening experience was vastly different from the world we are in now.

Not to be depressing but maybe there is still hope. People like Robert Glasper, Gregory Porter and Esperanza Spalding are doing fresh and exciting things. Jacob Collier is doing ridiculous things online and he obviously has a deep understanding of Jazz based harmony. Maybe we are seeing the start of new growth? Look at Antonio Sanchez’s awesome work on the “Birdman” soundtrack. That was really cool and it resonated with a lot of people. It’s not all doom and gloom. In all honesty this business has always been hard going right back to the days of Warren “Baby” Dodds. Has it ever really been easy? I don’t think so.

JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

MK: – I love that. He was right. Music is a life force for me. I can’t imagine how dull my life would have been if I didn’t play, listen or dance to music. It energizes me and it makes me happy. It’s a very powerful and positive force in the universe. As far as the meaning of life goes, well that’s a monstrous question that is practically impossible to answer. I’ll just say this….

With regards to music, spirit and the meaning of life, I would say that I am a vessel through which rhythm and music come from. The rhythm is a powerful force that can make people move without physically touching them. It can heal. It can create positive energy and it can bring extreme moments of emotion and clarity. It is a positive force (for me) that I use to bring about happiness and joy and it’s an outlet to keep being creative. We need people to be creative for the love and joy of it and not just the money. I would play (good) music regardless of whether or not money was involved. I love it too much to stop. It is a part of who I am and who I will always be in life and death. Music, Rhythm and I are connected on a deep level that cannot be separated.

JBN.S: – What are your expectations of the future? What brings you fear or anxiety?

MK: – I expect to keep playing music to the best of my ability. I expect to continue to teach younger players about the importance of improving their listening skills. I expect to continue to musically support all the musicians I work with. I expect to continue making music with the Jazz Exiles. I expect to love doing it as much as I can.

I am fearful mostly of the kind of world that my children will grow up in. It’s becoming more racially intolerant on a scale of ugliness that I have not seen in my lifetime. Greed and corruption abound freely without repercussion and society is spreading farther apart from the communal sense that we once had.

JBN.S: – What’s the next musical frontier for you?

MK: – Writing the material for the next Jazz Exiles recording and playing/touring and creating lots of music with the many artists I work with.

JBN.S: – Are there any similarities between jazz and world music, including folk music?

MK: – To me, there are lots of similarities but it’s less about the style of music itself. I really care about whether it feels good and grooves. If it doesn’t groove then the style doesn’t matter. It’s just a drag to play. I also care about the quality of the musician’s playing ability too. I play Cuban music with Hilario Duran and it’s brilliantly fun. However, I also play Celtic fiddle music with Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy, which I also love. Do I prefer one style over the other? No. What makes them similar is that all those musicians play their “thing” at an incredibly high proficiency level, which makes them a joy to play with. They groove hard and it feels good on both sides. That’s when I enjoy music the most.

JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

MK: – Recently I’ve checked out “Golpes E Flore”s by Eliana Cuevas, “Wide Open” by Michael MacDonald, “Ain’t it Funky Now” by Grant Green, “El Viaje” by Harold Nussa-Lopez, “(U)nity is Power” by (U)nity, “Our New Orleans” by Allen Toussaint. I also revisited Sgt Pepper, “Someday My Prince Will Come” by Miles and “Yellow Moon” by the Neville Bros. Cheers! MK

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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