Q&A with James Kennedy – 2010 NJA finalist

When did you start playing jazz and why? For example, was there a ‘moment’ when it came to you as a calling or vocation?
I started playing pretty seriously in a brass band in Sydney when I was about 14.  It was a pretty important time for me to get some reading and ensemble chops happening, but to be honest, the music/culture wasn’t doing it for me…
So when I was 16, I split from that scene and got into jazz, first in after hours courses at the Sydney Con, and then with Judy Bailey’s youth big band, Jazz Connection.
Looking back, I’d say that was the time I really began to be interested specifically in jazz.  I was also lucky to have some good teachers around me who knew what was what.

Which musicians (jazz or otherwise) have been your greatest influences? What about them stood or stands out for you?
Definitely Jaco Patorious, both as a writer and a player… and also Miles (obviously). Wayne Shorter’s writing is amazing, Joni Mitchell – for doing her thing in a hip way and getting great players around her.  And I dig Manfred Eicher for getting musicians into that ECM vibe on a whole stack of records.

I havent always been a fan of trombone players… The ones who have been able to master the thing, technically, often tend to play less musically (for me).. But J.J and Frank Rosolino are exceptions there… Just unbelievable…  I would also have to mention Adrian Mears alongside them both…. he sounds like a musician who happens to be playing the trombone, not the other way around… the horn doesn’t seem to get in his way, and I put very few bone players in that category – ever!  And a good lesson from Adrian is that he was/is always writing tunes for other people’s bands, similar to Wayne Shorter I guess….

When composing or arranging, where do you get your inspiration?
I usually get an idea or a melody as I’m walking around somewhere and try and jot it down quickly so I don’t forget it.  Then I find a piano next chance and try to nut out the harmony. To be honest, I don’t have amazing piano chops, so it’s pretty laborious.  I also have a pretty shocking memory, so I’m re-discovering / re-learning things all the time…(so fresh).

I did a lot of soul-less computer-based composing for TV at one stage, which came a little easier, but writing jazz tunes takes a lot more effort for me.  However, it is fantastic when it all comes together and you can hear other people playing your chart.

What’s your favourite place to play or practise?
An admission… I have a recording set up at home that I make use of for the majority of my practice. I play into a mic and monitor through the cans.  This allows me to pull up a nice room/hall space and I often set up delays for practicing Time.  It also means I’m ready to record any ideas that come to mind.  I’d never say that monitoring your sound through headphones is ideal for your overall playing, but practicing for long periods in a tight apartment space can be pretty energy-sapping… so I guess that set-up has its place.

Otherwise I get into a couple of good studios quite regularly, which are fantastic accoustic spaces to play solo in.

Realistically though, if I’m not doing gigs regularly, I’m heading backwards…

What does Wangaratta Jazz represent for you?
Funny comparison in some ways, but Wangaratta reminds a lot about being in NY….  After checking out a gig in NY, everyone seems to spill onto the street and talk about what they’ve just heard.  And then you’re off to the next club to see another gig.  It was surprising how many people we bumped into out the front of jazz clubs in NY.  And Wang is very similar, everyone knows everyone and is talking about the gig they just saw and what they’re planning to see next.  With Wang being focussed around a small area of town, it’s not too different to The Village in NY.

It’s also great that the festival is in neutral territory out in the country.  I think when things are available to you all the time, you take them for granted… So for city-folk making the trip to Wangaratta, it makes it quite a unique experience.

What are you listening to now?
Esperanza Spalding
Tomasz Stanko
Marian McPartland interviews

Return to the main Q&A page… These annual Q&As with National Jazz Awards finalists are coordinated by Miriam Zolin.