Jazz interview with jazz pianist and composer David Kikoski. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.com: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
David Kikoski: – I grew up in Milltown, NJ. My father played many instruments – piano, tenor sax, clarinet, guitar, organ, vibraphone, percussion, and flute. He started teaching my sister piano and one day, during her lesson, I went up to them and said, “Me, too, daddy.” I was six years old.
JBN: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
DK: – As a teenager, while studying jazz and playing with the New Jersey All State Band, I also played in progressive rock groups. I had a teacher who taught me twelve-tone music and counterpoint. Later, I studied at Berklee College of Music and met some great players and teachers there. Mostly, I learned by listening to many recordings and analyzing them. I did a lot of experimenting by myself and jammed with as many people as I could. All these things contributed to my development. With experience, hopefully, my ideas have become more personal and mature.
JBN: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
DK: – I investigate and analyze all different kinds of rhythms from all over the world, using mathematics to work out different patterns and exercises. I’ve been very lucky to play with some of the best drummers around. My father loved Latin music and had claves, maracas, cowbells, and other percussion instruments around the house. He showed me some rhythms at a very young age. I also played in rock bands and, when I came home from school, I always went immediately to the drums and banged around on them.
JBN: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?
DK: – I don’t try to prevent anything from coloring my music. I love all kinds of music and my style is a blend of all the things I’ve been influenced by. I don’t like categories such as swing, progressive, rock, fusion, etc. To me, it’s all just music. As Duke Ellington said, “There are only two types of music: good or bad.” Since I’ve studied all kinds of music from different cultures and time periods, I am able to play in a certain style if that is required. I enjoy being versatile and would get bored playing the same way all the time. It also depends on the mood I am in and the musicians I am playing with. Ultimately, I’ve always tried to play like myself regardless of genre or style.
JBN: – How do you prepare before your performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?
DK: – When I get a piece of music to learn, if it is an original composition that I didn’t write, I usually call the composer or arranger with questions to make sure we’re on the same page as to how it is supposed to sound. If it is a standard composition, I usually look for the original versions and classic arrangements that have already been recorded, so I know what’s been changed and what hasn’t been changed. I then decide how I want to approach the piece and add my own personal touch, while also being respectful of the composition and the arrangement. After all of that, once I get to the stage, all bets are off. I let the spirit take over and the music comes out by itself. I generally have a lot of energy, so my stamina is pretty much automatic.
JBN: – What do you love most about your new album 2019: <Phoenix Rising>, how it was formed and what you are working on today.
DK: – I love the musicians on the album and the way we all interact. It was very spontaneous with no rehearsal – we even wrote two of the songs at the studio. We just put it together right there and yelled out, “Record!” It also was mostly first takes, which gives it a fresh and spontaneous vibe.
Eric Alexander, the tenor player, and I have admired each other for a long time and we recently started to play a lot of gigs with each other around New York. We both played with Peter Washington and Joe Farnsworth on different occasions and agreed that they would be perfect for the quartet. With Eric’s assistance, we decided to connect with Barny Fields from High Note Records. He signed me and we recorded at Rudy Van Gelder Studio.
What am I working on now? In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I am staying at home like other musicians. This is the first time in my musical life to actually take a pause and work on things I normally don’t have time to get to. I’ve been re-inspired to immerse myself in the history of music. For example, I’ve been transcribing new songs and solos by some of my all-time heroes – such as Bud Powell, Art Tatum, Herbie Hancock – as well as practicing and listening to classical music. I’m discovering new things and analyzing music at a deeper level. I’ve also been reading books on Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, and Duke Ellington. This is motivating me to learn more of their songs. It’s all very exciting and I am looking forward to sharing what I’ve learned through online master classes and tutorials. Another thing I’ve started to enjoy is sharing music online. I taught online before the pandemic but I wasn’t into virtual concerts or collaboration, since I love playing live so much. In mid-March, I started to receive requests for live videos from venues and YouTube channels. I even received a request for a virtual CD release party. I am enjoying this new way of sharing music and connecting with my audience. I recently did a live-streaming concert from home as a featured artist for a series called Mingus Mondays Live, hosted by Charles Mingus Big Band. The live event got over 25K views, and people from all over the world joined us. I’m also posting solo piano videos on my Facebook with some new songs and arrangements.
JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
DK: – It’s important to me to have both, so I’d say about 50-50. For me, music is about emotions and comes from the heart. If the music touches my spirit, I then start to dissect it in an intellectual way. I take apart the melody, harmony, and the rhythm and analyze them so I can understand how to express different feelings in the music. I’d like to achieve a good balance between technique and feeling.
JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?
DK: – I am thrilled when the audience enjoys what I do, but first I think about expressing myself honestly and, when I’m playing with a group, I think of the musicians on stage first. If I make myself and the band happy, the audience can feel it and they will be happy, too.
JBN: – Please share any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
DK: – When I first went to Roy Haynes’ house for a jam, I brought my Fender Rhodes to his house and told him, “I’m sorry I forgot my sustain pedal.” Roy said, “You won’t need that playing with me.” We played one tune and he said, “You’re a mother#^%*&! Want to go to Europe with an old man?” That was way back in 1986, and we just did three nights at The Blue Note last November, 33 years later.
Another story with Mr. Haynes – I had a car accident and broke my right wrist a few weeks before a gig in Canada and a week at The Blue Note. I told Roy that I had to cancel everything because I had a cast up to my elbow. He proceeded to tell me two stories: the first one was about when Art Tatum saw Bud Powell play. After the show, Art said, “He’s great but doesn’t have much of a left hand.” The next night when Art came back, Bud played the whole night with only his left hand. What Roy was trying to say was, “If Bud could do it, you can do it, too.” The second story he told me was that, when he was working with Charlier Parker opposite The Buddy Rich Band, Buddy had his arm in a cast and played just fine. After that conversation, I felt like I had no choice. So, I practiced bebop heads and Chopin etudes, among other things, with my left hand for a few weeks. On the day of the gig in Canada, the bassist, Dwayne Burno, missed his flight, so now I had to play bass, chords, and solo all with my left hand. After a great solo by the saxophonist, Ron Blake, it was just my left hand and Roy! At the end of the gig, Roy said, “I didn’t notice any difference.” I was relieved. When we played The Blue Note, some important critics were there. On the last night, one of them told me, “That’s the best you ever sounded.”
A couple years later, I fell off the stage and broke my pointer finger – this time on my left hand. I kept working with my right hand while the left hand was in a cast. I had to do an all-star recording, Bird of a Feathers – A Tribute to Charlie Parker, with Roy Haynes, Roy Hargrove, Dave Holland, and Kenny Garrett. (Inside of the CD, there are some pictures of me in the cast.) The record was nominated for a Grammy Award. All these physical challenges forced me to concentrate on the independence of both hands and to play simply and directly, without relying on technique. Subsequently, I started thinking and playing more orchestrally.
JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
DK: – With my music, I am trying to transcend time periods. If good musicians keep playing jazz and staying fresh, young people will be interested. Personally, I do songs from all different time periods and my music incorporates various musical styles, such as classical, jazz, funk, rock and roll, and so on. Actually, jazz musicians since Louis Armstrong have always played the pop songs of the day.
JBN: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
DK: – I agree with John Coltrane. I think spirit is the essence of life. People have told me that I have a way of channeling spirit through my music. If that is the case, I’m happy.
Interview by Simon Sargsyan