Kenny Kirkland interview

[Updated: November 28, 1998]

INTERVIEW WITH KENNY KIRKLAND, MARCH 24TH 1996, ROTTERDAM "THE AHOY"

What follows is a complete and unedited transcript of an interview with Kenny Kirkland. Robbert and Rogier interviewed him backstage at the Ahoy' in a dressing room, just before Sting and band performed the first of two shows there.

At the sight of Rogier's recording equipment, Kenny starts our interview:

K: That's surprising that you've kept that for so many years - you never fixed it?

R: No.

K: Oh, that's great!

R: Kenny, on the "Bring On The Night" documentary, over 10 years ago, in one of the interviews you said that your mother has been responsible for you having become a musician, but your brother for you having become a jazz musician. Can you tell us a little bit more about how that went?

K: Well, you see, my mother and father asked for piano lessons when I was really young, and they got me a piano. And back then, you know, to get a piano was expensive, so, once I started playing I couldn't quit anymore, you know. I had to keep on doing it. So I didn't really love it, but I kept doing it. My brother turned me on to different jazz people, such as McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, and then I started loving getting into jazz. My brother got his doctor in philosophy, he's a professor.

R: Really?

K: Yeah, in New York. He's really into jazz, and he turned me on to a lot of stuff.

R: Is he a lot older than you?

K: Yeah, he's about 4 years older.

R: You borrowed his records and you copied them?

K: Yeah, he played me a lot of Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, and I started liking it! I would try to learn it off the record and stuff. And after that I started listening to all different piano players, you know. He's responsible for turning me on to jazz.

R: So you just listened to an album, trying to...

K: Trying to emulate it, yeah. Trying as much as I could. And after when I got into it more, I would really transcribe it, writing down exactly what they were playing and learn it. You know, to learn how to improvise.

R: You are a very versatile musician. You play a lot of different styles, without any problem whatsoever, and you do this with many different musicians, and not just within the jazz community, but also with "cross- over" artists; a variety of pop artists. The jazz music world is kind of traditional, a lot of puritan people in this business. And they don't really feel, that, to make this cross-over as a jazz musician... it's considered as "not done". How do you feel about this? And have you ever been criticized for playing with people who are not in this jazz world?

K: I think when I first started I was worried about it more. Then I just came from playing with Wynton and Branford. They played only jazz, and they had a very.. you know, blinded attitude to music. But I think that now that I'm older, you know.. I grew up in a time when I listened to R&B and I listed to rock and I listened to... I grew up in a good time where I could hear anything! Bebop music and classical music, and now I've put it all together and I'm just thankful to God that I like everything. You know, I LIKE music! I think, uh, whatever type of music it is, as long as your heart's into it and you're trying to create something musically, it's still the same place that it takes you to, you know; personally. So I think somebody who plays, uh, funk or reggae can still get to a place a big jazz artist can get to, spiritually. 'Cause it takes you outside of yourself. So I was like all of it, and I'm not worried about criticism, 'cause I think all of it is part of what my sound is now. Sting has helped that - from playing with Sting, uh, he's helped me incorporate everything; from jazz all the way to Sting's music which is not just rock! It's everything, it's jazz, and rock, so he's helped me bring that out of myself.

R: But did you never have to defend yourself? The puritans, say, for example Wynton (Marsalis -RR); Wynton criticized his own brother for playing with Sting!

K: Right. Well, I did.. I would always have to defend myself early on, but not recently, not now. Cause, before I didn't really know where I was at with it, so I would think that maybe this is true, that this is not really valid music compared to jazz, but now I don't see it that way. I see it as a blessing that I'm able to enjoy all the different sides of music, you know, 'cause I like all of it. So it's really a trip for me to go from playing jazz and playing a whole bunch of stuff and create it, and to come in here and play very controlled, to play just to fit in for the song. I like to fit in.

R: Wynton Marsalis' goal in music was to become the Jesus of jazz. Do you think he has achieved that goal?

K: Uhm.. I think he's backed off.. I think he's not so.. I think Wynton is the most serious, my idea of a serious musician is Wynton Marsalis. He's very serious, and music needs him. Somebody like him that's very serious about it, but when I played with Wynton, he put a separation inbetween, uh, the people who play commercial music, say Sting, and.. he put a separation in it, which I think, uh, you know, no matter what type of music you play, the gift is being able to reach that point musically where it'll make you happy and you'll feel fulfilled. And that happens in jazz, and it happens with Sting, and that happens playing every music! It's like a teachful place that it can take you to. So that's the relationship between Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane, or the Beatles. The relationship is that they all can do the same thing in their own way; get to another spiritual space.

R: To be serious about music.

K: Yeah! And you know, music makes me really happy in my life, you know. It's like a gift. Some people, they don't have that. They don't have something to... you know, it takes me away from my problems, you know. Whether I get paid or not! (starts laughing) It's something very special.

R: You just enjoy playing.

K: Yeah, I love it, so.. I'm happy to be able to be doing something that I love to do, so I don't worry about what people say that dislike jazz music or rock music, because, you know, it's a blessing to be able to do it all! To be able to just play it, you know. I have that kind of relationship with it. I love it. I just love it, thank God. I love it.

R: And that's very obvious, because we watched you play during the Amsterdam shows, and you were just singing along with all the songs!

K: Oh yeah! I really love this record. I think it's the best record I've done with Sting, in terms of, uh..

R: Really?

K: Yeah! 'Cause Sting has gotten to a maturity with his music where he's comfortable.. he's not trying to be this, or trying to be.. his music is the way, you know, odd music is not all he's in for. He's comfortable doing what he feels. And I think, uh, I'm more appreciative of Sting now than I ever was. He's just grown up alot, you know.

R: But do you still think he's serious about his music?

K: Very! Very. More so than ever.

R: So in that respect, what has changed since your period with Sting from 1985 until 1988?

K: I think, uh, early on, Sting was trying to find, uh, a slot for himself outside of the Police. And he was like searching different things, like, on one record, remember that song we did "We'll Be Together Tonight"?

R: Yeah.

K: You know, Sting shouldn't do that!! That song is not Sting!

R: There are different versions of that song. One is with Eric Clapton.

K: Oh, I never heard that.

R: You never heard it?!

K: No! I've got to hear that.

R: Eric Clapton played the guitar. I can tape it for you.

K: Ok, yeah, I'd like to hear it. So yeah, that song, you know, he was searching to find something commercial that young people would like; dancing, but that's out of character I think for Sting. And I think now he's more comfortable, not worrying about that. He'll do what his music is, you know, he trusts what his music is. And if you like it, you like it. If you don't, you don't, you know. If you like Sting, you'll like this music, 'cause the lyrics are always really clever. And the music is always like that. But Sting, he always knows exactly what he wants. He doesn't make.. have us create his music, he has us create what he has in his head. 'Cause he always knows what he wants for every part. Always.

R: Kenny, something that has been fascinating us for years, is uh.. in 1992 I attended a taping of The Tonight Show, just to see you and Branford.

K: Right.

R: And I enjoyed it alot, because you guys really played alot of music during the commercial breaks..

K: Right.

R: But, this is not to be seen or heard on television! So I've always asked myself, musicians such as you and Branford and Kevin Eubanks (the guitarist of the Tonight Show Band -RR) and Jeff Tain Watts (the drummer), you know, very talented guys; why did you want to play on The Tonight Show? Wasn't that very frustrating? What you did, was only heard for a few seconds?!?

K: You know, when we first started I would never believe, that.. when Branford told me he wanted us to do the show, I would never believe that it would happen. And he said "They want us to play jazz on the show!" And I was like, I didn't believe it would happen! I just didn't believe it. And I don't like Los Angeles (where the NBC studios are located -RR) neither, so.. (starts laughing) 'Cause I'm a New Yorker!

R: Well, there you go!

K: Yeah, I'm a New Yorker! So I don't like Los Angeles. And so, when it happened, it was like, really a surprise to me and I never though we were gonna play jazz and stuff. And I got into it, but I thought I would do it maybe for one year. And then it got really comfortable, you know; a steady paycheck, the benefits and everything, you know. Which is just great for a "road" musician, that you get a steady paycheck. But I was not really happy doing that. It was like, we wouldn't PLAY, it's like as if we stoped playing! And the L.A. lifestyle is like, laid back, you know; a "Hollywood" thing. You make your money, and you look like you're popular, and that's the whole thing. You don't really have to strive to do any music and stuff. So I was getting really unhappy doing that. Branford too. So uh, by the time we stopped, we couldn't play any jazz! They said "No Jazz!" They thought that jazz was messing the ratings up. Eventhough you couldn't hear the music anyway!! (starts laughing loudly) So then I just hated it. So right after that stopped, uh, Sting called me 2 days after. It was like a blessing, you know. And I was ready to do it, to come back.

R: The Japanese tour. (which started June 1995 -RR)

K: Yeah, I was really ready to come back, 'cause I had been in L.A. for 3 years straight! I couldn't leave town, I was like, at home all the time.

R: You have a house there?

K: I have a place there, yeah. So I was really ready to leave. And then getting back with Sting I just felt really, uh, appreciative. I feel like I wish I didn't leave, you know. I wish I never would have stopped. That was a mistake.

R: Can we ask you why you weren't on the Soul Cages tour? Because in December 1990, about 4 weeks before the tour was about to kick off, Sting on a radioshow said "well, my new band will feature Kenny Kirkland." But then I went to New York to see the first few shows of that tour, and I was going into the theatre expecting to see you on stage, but then it turned out to be David, who's a great guy too, but it wasn't you! What happened?

K: You know, I was at the point of working with different people, and I had a record contract to do my own record, and I kept putting it off and putting it off. And I felt kind of like I was depending on playing with Sting. So I felt like I had to show myself, that I could do it without that. So, I did! I did my record. And I made less money, but it was good for me to show myself that I could do that on my own. And then The Tonight Show came up, and then I started doing that. But uh, working with Sting.. he's the greatest boss, you know. Musically and otherwise, he's a really good person. A really good man. Really sharing, and he appeciates all of us in the band, you know. So, this is the kind of situation that.. The Tonight Show wasn't like that, you know. You're like a number.

R: Exactly.

K: Yeah, a faceless person, not a musician. So I appreciate being able to play with somebody who really appreciates us, who makes us feel important. Sting, yeah!

R: Because The Tonight Show, yeah, like you said, you were just part of, you know..

K: Yeah, it takes away your identity. So I was really happy to come back. And you know, now I'm older, so I really appreciate the situation much better, because Sting's music is great for me, I love playing it, and it has helped me alot.

R: You once said that you can only be natural when you play. The entertainment side is kind of lacking for you, so we were surprised to hear that you will rap during "The Bed's Too big Without You"! K (starts laughing again): Well, you know what, when he did that song with this guy named Ranking Roger, he did the rap, and then so, we had background singers in New York, and they did it; Monica did it. And so Sting asked me did I want to do it! And you know, I was just like, to have a goof with it!

R: For the hell of it!

K: Yeah!! (starts laughing very loudly again) So I do it, that part.

R: We look forward to hearing it tonight! We haven't heard it yet!

K: Well, I'm just an amateur, though, I'm not really a rapper.

R: But isn't it really a complete rap, like Branford did on "When The World Is Running Down"?

K: Yeah, it's kinda like that. Yeah, it's kinda like that. Yeah.

R: That's nice!

K: Yeah. It's like, I learnt the rap that he did, and eventually I'll do my own. But I learnt the one that was on the record. It's funny. I'll come out of my shell! (starts laughing)

R: Kenny, are you aware, or even influenced by all the clone "Kirkland" pianists who've tried to copy you, and who have all transcribed your "Bring On The Night" solo from the live record?

K: You know, it's flattering that people do that. I guess that playing on Sting's record, since it gets you around to alot of people, alot of people mention that solo to me. But uh, when people tell me that, I feel like they should learn it from the "real" (laughs).. I feel like I learnt it from somebody! I feel like I'm a student, you know.

R: Really?

K: Oh yeah.

R: But I mean, on the level that you are, you still feel like a student?

K: Oh yeah, 'cause I hear people like Herbie Hancock or McCoy Tyner, and Keith Jarrett, who's like one of my favourites. These people really, to me, they're the teachers always. I feel like I'm a student and I've got a lot to learn. But I'm glad I have that attitude 'cause I keep wanting to learn more, you know.

R: It's funny that you say this, because in the Jazz Anthology by Leonard Feather, he considers you amongst the top musicians, jazz musicians; piano musicians in the world!

K: Leonard Feather wrote that?

R: Yes!

K: Really? I didn't even know that! Man, get out of here! (starts laughing)

R: And he's speaking about you as a pianist jazz musician, thinking that you're one of the most promising musicians in the world. In that respect, don't you think it's too bad that jazz does not have the same, wide popularity as, say, pop music?

K: Yeah, I think that's a sad thing, but it's like, I don't think jazz is for everybody. I think it's a lot of the society too, and how they, you know, people, uh, put stuff out. People get hip to a lot of music, whatever the companies play for them, whatever the radiostations play, people get hip about it. But I think a lot of the jazz music has been.. it goes over people's heads, that's why. And people get like an idea of what jazz is, "oh, I don't like that", you know. But jazz incorporates everything; some of Sting's stuff is jazz. And there's a way to get to a bunch of people, I think. As time goes on that's gonna happen more. I think it's gonna get more popular, and not like being like Kenny G or something, which is like elevator music.

R: Yeah, we think he sucks too.

K: Yeah, you too? Yeah (laughs). You know, I like Kenny G; he's a nice guy and I'm happy for him..

R: But musically..

K: But musically, you know, I wouldn't want to have to play that kind of.. something uncreative. I think that, as time goes on, it's gonna incorporate more of hiphop. But with jazz, real jazz playing, though, I think there's a way to make it accessible to people. It's too bad that it's a small thing, you know. But it's for, like, for special "elite" groups, supposedly.

R: Do you think that nowadays, especially in America where you have special radio stations for special sorts of music, say, you have a special radio station for rap, a special station for jazz, a special station for blues, whereas back in the fifties and sixtees..

K: Everything together.

R: You had everything on one channel! Do you think that might be the reason why jazz is kind of, you know..

K: I think that is a lot of it. You know, I heard a radio station here, a jazz station here, and it was like the best jazz station I've heard!

R: Really? Here in Holland?

K: Yeah, I've been playing it everyday in the hotel! And they would play Louis Armstrong, and they'll play something modern, and they would play something like from the fifties, but most of it all jazz, not contemporary jazz, light jazz. A really good station here. But they don't do that alot anymore, it's either electronic, you know, electric piano, contemporary jazz or what they call it. Like Kenny G and stuff like that, which is not even jazz to me, you know.

R: Elevator music. K (laughing): Right! Yeah, I think that has alot to do with it.

R: Because people are not exposed to it.

K: Right, people are not exposed to it, that's what it is. And people don't want to get behind jazz, because of what it represents in the past. You know, it's not something that uh; it's America's artform but America never embraced it. I think people in Europe embraced it as an artform more than Americans did, you know.

R: That's probably why we have more jazz festivals in Europe than in America.

K: Right! 'Cause I think the jazz thing had a bad name, with Charlie Parker and the drugs, and you know, it turned it into a bad thing, you know? 'Cause it should be something like classical music is in Europe! It's something that America has to offer, culturally.

R: You talked about classical music. In your early years you learnt alot of classical pieces by Chopin, Beethoven..

K: Yeah.

R: Are you thinking about doing a classical project, or is it just..

K: Uh, I'm thinking of doing.. I have been thinking about doing something, but it's a few years down the line, and I really wanna work on what I've been doing. When we were doing Sting's record, we were at his house doing this record for like 3 months, and he has a Bosendorff piano. And I was practising more than I've ever practised, you know, it's alot of free time there. So uh, I was practising alot and I've got a few pieces. And Sting has a recording studio right in his house, so he was like, you know, when you get the pieces together, record them. And I'm trying to put together a classical record, something that I can tackle, that isn't too hard and that I can deal with.

R: David Sancious used to depend alot on his technician Peter Lorimer, who is a bit of a friend of ours.

K: Oh, ok.

R: Do you yourself value the backup of a technician to set up your gear and to look after your gear during or before the show?

K: Really, let me tell you: without Peter Lorimer I couldn't do half of the stuff that I do. He's like the best technician EVER!!

R: Really?

K: The best I ever dealt with. I really love him and respect him, he's a really great man too. He's the Zenmaster, he's really mellow. And he's helped me with all the.. he'll tell me things to play, he'll always make suggestions, he'll always say "Is it allright if I say this? Maybe you should use this part for this part." And 90 percent of the time he is right 'bout what he says to me. He's very keen, and he's very technically and I really love him. He handles the stuff and I depend on him alot!

R: He told us that he had to uh.. David used to work alot with his feet, and he told us that, for you, since you don't use your feet a whole lot, he really had to change..

K: The whole setup.

R: The whole gear, the whole setup.

K: Right. It's simpler, it's much simpler, but he has turned me on to this setup that I have now, you know. Playing everything from one keyboard and having modules and having different keyboards on one keyboard.

R: Would you consider yourself a traditional musician when it comes to the use of computers? Because David had his PC next to him.

K: Well, on stage I haven't used computers yet. I've used the computer alot at home for writing and stuff. So I consider myself a traditional musician, but I'm into the computers, you know; sequencing and samples, I'm really into that. And I think it's the best thing that has happened for a musician. Musicians that really know how to deal with music, the computer really helps. I think alot of musicians, alot of people who are not musicians who use the computer just to create a quick thrill or something..

R: Would you call them musicians?

K: No. No. See, that's where it has changed. But these are the people who are running the music business, there's a lot of bullshit playing.

R: What was it like to play keyboards together with Delmar Brown (played keyboards on the Nothing Like The Sun tour -RR)?

K: Well, Delmar, I love Delmar. He's been my friend for 20 years.

R: So he's an old friend of yours?

K: Yeah, and I just love Delmar's energy, and playing with Delmar any time I love. I love his energy, I love his spirit and I love his music.

R: What does he do now?

K: He just put out a CD. He lives in Miami, he put out his own CD and he's gonna be touring with his own band again. D: It was just one tour for Sting to use 2 keyboardplayers.

K: Yeah. D: Do you know why?

K: I don't know, I think that tour was a little hectic. There were alot of people and alot of, uh, different attitudes between different people, and it was like, hard. This situation here, everybody is.. the vibe is much easier. I think, you know, people's ego's and stuff like that got into the way, which is always a problem.

R: With a big band.

K: Yeah, everybody's personality is different. But this is.. everybody here "gells" really well. 'Cause Sting likes it to be peaceful.

R: Kenny, do you program alot of your own sounds? Or are there certain contracted people such as, say people like Robbie Kilgore for the Michael Brecker LP you worked on, who create sounds for you?

K: I create alot of my sounds, yeah. At home on my things I create sounds, but on this tour, Hopps (keytech -RR) helps me with sounds and stuff. But I don't create.. I'm not a synthesist, though. I think I would hire somebody. If I would need alot of keyboards, I would hire somebody who's a programmer. I'm more of a pianist, I think. But I like all of it, though.

R: Piano is still your instrument.

K: That's my instrument. I consider myself a pianoplayer that plays keyboards (laughs).

R: Is it a big difference when translating all the keyboard parts from the new album into a controllable live setup?

K: It hasn't been that difficult. Peter has helped me with it, so it hasn't been that difficult. 'Cause usually Sting's parts are very clear, straight forward, and most of the parts that I play on the record, Sting.. you know, we tried all different things, and Sting would help me get the parts if you wanted him to. And once you got the parts that was pretty much it, so uh, it hasn't been that difficult.

R: Although you were almost hidden for the public you played with the Police during the Amnesty International tour, the Conspiracy of Hope tour during June 1986. What was it like to play with the Police?

K: Ok, that situation is kind of a blur to me, because uh..

R: It were just 3 shows, one in Atlanta, one in East-Rutherford and one in Chicago, I think.

K: That's right, Chicago. Well, back then I was really, uh, I didn't really speak to Stewart or to Andy that much. I only knew Sting, so it was kind of a.. I was like detached from the whole situation, you know, just from playing it off from the corner. I didn't feel like I was part of it. But I was happy to be there, to play with them, 'cause that was the last time they played, so I was happy to be part of it.

R: It was unique.

K: Yeah, it was. It was great. But I didn't feel like I had any vibe with them, only with Sting.

R: Why were you there?

K: Well, when we rehearsed I did feel I never got connected with Stewart or Andy, you know. Only Sting. It was a different level, a different vibe. And Sting is really the Police to me. It's all his songs, it's like Sting's thing. I mean, Stewart started it, but Sting is really the voice of the Police. Without him, there's no Police.

R: Kenny, in jazz music it is almost an unspoken rule that says "improvisation". To improvize; the keyword to jazz. Pop music is alot more restricted. I would be able to imagine playing the songs night after night when you're on tour eventually wears you out. How do you deal with that, to not make that happen?

K: Well, I think right now, uh, when we first started, we keep it pretty close to how the record was and try not to stretch out too much. Just learn all your parts and your moves, but as time goes on, you know, just to make yourself more enthusiastic, you'll change up and try different things and go on like that. But the songs are really good, you can play them different all the time. They're really good songs, I think. What do you think about Sting's record? - At the sight of our reaction, Kenny starts to laugh loudly and says:

K: I don't like that look!!! (we obviously gave him reason for that!-RR)

R: It's a very fine made album. Obviously alot of time was put into it, it's very creative, we think. And maybe it's just us, but.. there's something for us missing there, and I wouldn't really be able to say what, how to describe that. We still love it! But I mean, this tour, the setlist of this tour is almost a blueprint of the previous tour. I mean, almost the same songs and just a few different songs added to it.

K: I thought that too. Yeah, I thought he should change, do some other songs.

R: I mean, you have hornplayers now, that gives you alot more possibilities in terms of choice of material.

K: Right. Well, I think we're gonna do "Mad About You" tonight.

R: We saw the setlist already, yeah.

K: Yeah, but we could do a bunch of songs from Blue Turtles; "Fortress" we should do..

R: Exactly!

K: I think so too. I told Sting that, actually.

R: You did?

K: Yeah.

R: What was his reaction?

K: He was like, uh, he uses them tunes, because they always get a reaction when he does all of them tunes, you know, "Englishman", all them songs that he gets a really strong reaction from, that's why he does them; he thinks people wanna hear them. But uh, I think he should pull out some of those other ones that people really like, you know. There are alot of good ones from Nothing Like The Sun and others, yeah.

R: Kenny, you and Branford have been like Siamese twins..

K: Almost!

R: For years! You both started working with Wynton, in 1983, from then on you've both toured with Sting, you've toured with Branford, you did the Tonight Show together. This is actually the first time more or less that you are not together.

K: That's right.

R: Are you aware of that? How do you feel about that?

K: Oh yeah! 'Cause I've been together with Branford for the last 13 years, in one or another situation or not. Yeah, I miss Branford. But I saw him, he played in New York when we played there.

R: Yeah, we've heard that.

K: Yeah, when I finish doing this I'm probably gonna go back out with Branford. Hopefully. Or he'll come out and play with me.

R: Branford is on tour at the moment?

K: Uh, he's working on another Buckshot Lefonque album.

R: When will it come out? In September?

K: Uh, it'll come out probably, uh, in September. But this tour will probably go until the end of the year. Or maybe longer, maybe until sometime next year. Yeah, but I miss Branford.

R: In the past you've played about 300 shows with Sting. Which shows do you see as highlights?

K: Uh, you know the shows here are always good. The people like Sting.

R: In Holland?

K: Yeah! They love Sting here, yeah. Uh.. Bercy, in Paris.

R: A French audience is always great.

K: Yeah, they love Sting. Bercy, uh.. I love playing in Los Angeles and New York, you know; each side of the coast. But I can't think of one special, really special.. it's been so many years.

R: There's one show special though..! Your album that was released in 1991 has a song on it, the last song, called "Blasphemy". Are you aware of the fact that this song has actually surfaced on a Sting bootleg? On July 27th, 1988..

K: We played in L.A.!

R: Yes! And you did that song with Branford!

K: Yes! (laughs proudly this time) Right, that's right. But I didn't know that it was on a bootleg!

R: Yes, it is! And it has an excellent soundquality, amazing soundquality.

K: Oh yeah?

R: Yeah, it's a soundboard recording. Because it was planned to be released as a live album, that show.

K: Right, right.

R: And suddenly this tape surfaced into the collector's world and someone made a bootleg out of it.

K: Wow! You've got that too?

R: Yeah.

K: I'd like to hear that too!

R: No problem, we can make you a copy.

K: Ok, great. You're coming tomorrow, right?

R: Yes.

R: Kenny, you play alot of different styles on your own album. I have your album, and uh..

K: Thank you. (laughs)

R: And the great thing about it, it's not really a jazz album; obviously it's a large influence, but you go from different styles; there's a little bit of Latin music in there..

K: Yeah.

R: Was that your goal? To make it as versatile as possible?

K: Yeah, yeah. 'Cause I didn't know exactly what, uh, I didn't wanna do just a straight-ahead jazz record; I wanted to use keyboards, and I love percussion, so I wanted to do.. you know, my next record will be more focussed, you know, I'm more into the Afro-Cuban percussion stuff, and I would use alot more percussion and keyboards; I have more of an idea. Since that was my first record, I was trying to put EVERYthing on it (laughs).

R: To prove that you...?

K: Yeah, I didn't know exactly which way to go, but now I have more of a thing of where I wanna go.

R: After graduation you got a gig with jazzrock violist Michael Urbaniak. Was that in 1977?

K: Yeah.

R: Uh, he asked you to play synthesizers, although you couldn't play synthesizers! So my question is: Do you still swank about your musical qualities?

K: Oh, you mean with synthesizers?

R: No, no, it's just a joke! It was just kind of a joke.

K: Oh, ok (starts laughing and obviously got nd enjoyed the joke!) But yeah, I still, uh, he asked me to play, and uh..

R: But was it true? He asked you to play?

K: He asked me could I play and I told him yeah but I could never play the synthesizer, you know. He found out when I started playing (laughs)!! He was very patient with me! (starts laughing again, enjoying the memory) But now synthesizers are easy to play. Back then it was like, you had to program it while you played, you had Minimoog, that was a while ago. Just before the Parlophonics. Parlophonics were just coming out, so, the Minimoog was a big instrument.

R: Kenny, name 3 musicians that have been the biggest influence on you.

K: The biggest influence? I would have to say Herbie Hancock first.

R: Have you heard his new album? The New Standards?

K: Yeah, just got it. Herbie, uh, Keith Jarrett and McCoy Tyner. If you say 3 right off my head.

R: And why?

K: Because they made me really love.. when I heard them play I just really loved what they did and it made me wanna do that and it inspired me. It still does! And it made me understand music. I started studying what they did and from studying them I went back and started to learn about Monk (Thelonious Monk -RR) and Bud Powell and everybody, Wayne Kelly. So I started with the more contemporary guys and went back, you know?

R: And you're covering some of their songs on your own album.

K: Oh yeah! Oh yeah. Yeah. A Bud Powell song.

R: "Celia".

K: "Celia", that's right.

R: That's a very nice track.

K: Ah, thanks.

R: I think jazz, over the years, has developed going from in the twenties and the thirties from swing, to bebop, to hardbop, to cooljazz, and from there basically to fusion. And rather than having added something new, it seems as if alot of young jazz musicians at this moment are trying to repeat this cyclus.

K: Right.

R: Would that be your view on it as well?

K: I think that alot, I think that's happening. Not alot of new things happening. And I think, uh, people get caught up, I mean tradition is really important, to study it, but I think after a certain point, musicians have to find their own voice and how they express that music, you know. And I think alot of people forget about that; they get really studious and studying the music and they forget about their own voice, or trying different things new, new stuff. Alot of it is like, "neo" bebop now, it's like everybody with suits, and young guys with suits, covering the time of years ago, how they used to be and playing the music that way. And there's alot to be learnt about it musically, but I think, uh, creatively it is a rut. I think alot of times people.. it is a rut 'cause there hasn't been anything really new happening. Nobody's been trying. Do you know this singer Cassandra Wilson?

R: Yes.

K: She.. I think, her, uh, style and what she's trying to do, her concept is trying to do something.. utilize the blues and utilize everything; it's new to me. It's like a fresh thing.

R: Now that you're mentioning the women in music; apart from Gerri Allen and Renee Rosnee there aren't really that many female jazz piano players. Overall, the jazz world is a bit of a man's world. Why would that be?

K: I think it's like with everything else happening; women are always treated like second class citizens. It's from years of that happening! But I think a woman who's really into music can be more expressive than a guy can, just from her nature. Gerri Allen; I love Gerri Allen, she's very powerful. But I think more and more women.. for a woman to study jazz and to do it she has to be very strong and put up with alot of chauvinism and macho stuff. So for a woman to get really successful that way she has to have alot of strength, you know. Gerri Allen is one and Renee Rosnee. And Joanne Burkeen, she's a piano player too. And my girl- friend, she plays percussion, she's from Cuba. (proud look in his eyes)

R: Really?

K: Yeah. You know, female musicians.. I know so many great female musicians, to me there's no difference between them and a guy to me; you know, a good musician is a good musician!

R: True. But the thing is that they don't really seem to have that same kind of exposure, to have their "share"!

K: Yeah, it's a man being an asshole again!! (starts laughing loudly) It's the same old story!

R: You seem to like Latin and Cuban music. In what kind of way does this music attract you? Is it the rhythm?

K: The rhythm, yeah. You know, my mother is from Puerto Rico, so I guess that part is in me. And I like congas and percussion and stuff. Uh, the dancing, you know; rumbas, salsas, I like all of this Cuban stuff. There's a group called Irakere coming into town, there're playing in Amsterdam; Chucho Valdez and this group Irakere. If you see that.. you should see that. It's a Cuban group - great!!

R: What are their names?

K: Uh, the piano player is named Chucho Valdez and the group is called Irakere. I think they're playing in Amsterdam the 31st of March. And you know, alot of the Cuban music has been blocked off from America, you know, because of politics and stuff. So, there's so much special music in Cuba; they're so far ahead of us everywhere else in the world, because they have their little closed off slot. But it's incredible music that they have there. Incredible musicians.

R: Have you ever been there?

K: No. But I would love to go there. I would love to go there. You heard of a piano player called Gonzalo Rubalcaba?

R: I'm sorry, no.

K: He's Cuban. He's incredible. He's like the best! Him, and Chucho.. musicians from now are like the best musicians in the world, I think. Really?

K: Yeah. It's a big secret 'cause nobody knows! But if you get to see Irakere; I.R.A.K.E.R.E.- you should go see them 'cause it's really good. There's alot of Latin music here, right?

R: Over here? Yes.

K: We were trying to find a jazz club last night. But we didn't know where to go and sit in. We could sit in, me and Clyde the trombone player. We're like bebopers! (laughs)

R: Kenny, what has always fascinated me, since I used to play the piano myself..

K: Oh, you did?!?

R: Well I stopped after.. I had lessons from age 10 to 15. And uhm, if I listen to you play, I'm always amazed about your solos, because not one is the same! How do you create this? How do you go? I mean, I can image that if you play a really great solo, and you think to yourself, "ok, this was a really great solo; let me do this again tomorrow night." Is that a temptation?

K: Alot, sometimes, yeah.. to me it feels like as if I play the same thing all the time (laughs), but uh..

R: No you don't!

K: Uhm, well it's just from the jazz thing; you try not to.. you try to do something different if you find yourself doing the same thing. And on some certain things in the show I have to do the same thing, it's built up that way. But you try not to. I think that after a certain point you should be able to do something different; it's like having a vocabulary. And you know what to say in a certain way and it's not like having to say the same thing all the time. It's like you just use the vocabulary to put together whatever you want to say.

R: And you're never afraid?

K: Not afraid, uh.. you know, sometimes frustrated 'cause you get tired of saying the same thing. Sometimes I feel as if I'm doing the same thing and it gets boring. But if it gets too boring I'll just do something really outside of the ordinary and crazy. That'll make it.. it might sound wrong but it'll make it fresh.

R: In the solo that you do in "When The World Is Running Down" we hear the Latin influence that you have put in it; during the Amsterdam shows we just heard how you sort of wondered off there.

K: Oh yeah. Well, we do that all the time! I started doing this thing, I like the Latin part, that's why; I do the same all the time, but then inbetween I'll try to do different things, yeah.

R: In reviews people always start to talk about your solo during "When The World Is Running Down". Do you think that's the only part during the show when you really are free to do what you want?

K: Uh... (long pause) I guess that's the most.. the part of the show where I'm free to play a solo, but I think it's in a very restricted, a very limited space, in terms of, uh.. it's not like a jazz gig; I don't feel like I'm free as being on a jazz gig. But I feel like, yeah, that's the part of the show where I get the most space to do what I want.

R: But you played this song for 10 years now..

K: I know!

R: Don't you want to do that in another song!?!

R: That's what I mean! Eliminate it or do it in another way, 'cause it's the same thing! And after like, playing it every night, you know, it's hard to come up with something new! So I'll just have to try, but I very rarely feel that I come up with something new. To me, every night it's like pretty much the same. Sometimes it's a little bit better than others, but it's hard.

R: But when we listen to the tapes, in our opinion it's always different!

K: Oh, cool! Well I'm gonna try and really do something different tonight!

R: We'll wait for that!

R: Kenny, can you tell us, if you want to of course, can you tell us a little bit more about yourself. About where you live, your private life..

K: Well, right now I live in L.A. I grew up in New York, though. Uh, I moved to L.A. to do the show (the Tonight Show -RR), I'm living there now for 3 years. Still live there. But when I finish this tour I'm gonna go back to New York.

R: You will go and live there again?

K: Yeah. I'm gonna go back there. My mama lives there, my whole family lives there. Uh.. I don't know what else there is to tell you! (laughs) I've just been like a traveling musician, you know, for most of the time, and I enjoy it.

R: Right, but we also asked Peter the same question; don't you feel like a nomad sometimes? Because you're always away from home! Especially when you're on a tour like this one, which is like a year long!

K: Right, this one is long. This one is rough. But I haven't been on tour in 3 years, though, so.. I've been in one place and you get tired of that after a while, you're like "I wanna get out of here!", you know. L.A. especially! You know, if I was in a place like Amsterdam or New York.. I like Amsterdam as well. You know, a good vibration and it's different. Uh, but I know that it's hard. By the next few months I'm gonna be pretty.. probably going crazy. It gets like that sometimes. 'Cause the older you get, you wanna be in one place. Not that I have any kids or a family or something. Do you have any kids?

R: No. (everybody starts laughing)

K: Right. So, I'm free to do it.

R: But that is something that, you, in the end, do enjoy?

K: Yeah. I mean, traveling a whole lot.. after about 6 months of being gone you wanna go home..

R: But when you are at home you want to travel.

K: Right! Yeah. But I think that this is a good situation, you know. Everybody is like a family and it's fun; Sting is good to work for, so it's easy. I just miss my people at home, you know, my girlfriend.

R: Will she come and join the tour?

K: Yeah, she's coming to Paris.

R: 'Cause that must be hard, if you have a girlfriend or if you have a wife and children..

K: Right, you go back home and you don't have nothing! (laughing) I know, it's hard.

R: And to organize that, you know, 'cause you're away for like a year.

K: Yeah, well, she came to New York and every month I'll bring her somewhere.

R: Do you like playing for large crowds?

K: I like the energy of it. But even a small crowd; if they have the energy, I like it. It could be a small crowd in a club, just the energy is important. If everybody is sitting there like.. we were playing in Russia, in Moscow, and the people were like, they didn't move! It was really hard! Then we left and went to Finland and the energy was great.

R: Which record have you bought during the last few weeks?

K: I bought that Herbie record, the New Standards one.

R: Is that the album he's doing coversongs by a.o. Peter Gabriel?

K: Yeah. And you will never notice it, 'cause the songs.. he's playing them.. he's just killing, man. He's just killing. It's really good. And Michael Brecker is playing on it. And I bought a Keith Jarrett record; Standards In Norway. And I bought a Shirley Horn record; she's a singer and piano player, she's great. But I haven't bought alot of stuff.

R: Well, I once read an interview and people asked you the same question. And you named about 10 or 20 records, from Aerosmith to jazz; a very wide variety of styles!

K: (laughs) Oh yeah! I haven't been buying that much this time. Classical I used to buy alot, but I haven't been doing that much; too much to carry!

R: What do you think of modern-day music like Nirvana or Aerosmith, who of course have been around much longer, but what do you think of them?

K: I like Aerosmith! There's certain groups that I like; their energy. But with alot of the new groups out, you know, I feel like generation is changing; I just feel like, I don't know what kids are starting to like, but it makes me feel like I'm older. 'Cause I don't like alot of this nonsense. So that's why Sting's record is refreshing 'cause it's artistic, you know. It is refreshing to hear MUSIC being played.

R: Ok, I'll give you a name, and I want to hear your opinion.

K: Ok.

R: Prince.

K: Prince, I love 'em. He's like a pop icon. Well, not really, but he's like one of my favourites

R: David Sancious.

K: David Sancious is like a role model to me. 'Cause we used to play on this other fusion record with Stanley Clark, and when I first started playing it I always looked up to David, you know. And he's a good friend of mine too. I love him.

R: The Rolling Stones.

K: The Rolling Stones? I grew up with them! And now my friend Darryl has been playing with them (Darryl Jones, former bass player in Sting's band -RR). And I recorded something with them, although it didn't get onto the record. Keith Richards is gonna use it on his record. He wanted me to play real jazz, you know, on a just real Rolling Stones sounding tune, and it came out allright, actually. So Keith Richards is gonna use it on his record.

R: Dominic Miller.

K: Dominic Miller; he's probably the best guitar player I've played with, in terms of musical accompanying. He's a really good musician; great ears. You know, I really love Dominic. But everybody in the band; we get along really great. Dominic.. I've learnt alot from Dominic. He accompanies really well. And he's like the best person for Sting.

R: We think he as grown alot during the last few years.

K: Oh yeah, yeah. He's incredible, Dominic. He has a record out that is really nice. Really nice, pretty sounds, you know; relaxed.

R: Vinnie Colaiuta.

K: Vinnie, he's the madman! But he always delivers and he's bad! I'm really close to Vinnie too. And you know, I couldn't make it without them guys, you know. They really keep everything cool.

R: They're like your family away from..

K: My family away from home, exactly.

R: Bruce Hornsby.

K: Oh I love Bruce Hornsby! I've just met him a few times. But he has a great feel, you know. He's the only person playing the piano in a pop idiom like that. And he's stretching out. He's a jazz player, though.

R: He's working on a jazz album.

K: Yeah, he can play his ass off!

R: Peter Gabriel.

K: Peter Gabriel. I love Peter Gabriel. He's somebody that I would like to play with. I really love his music. And I love the way he is.

R: H''s very critical about his own music.

K: Yeah. Yeah! (laughs) I love him, though; he's a really good man too.

R: Have you seen his previous tour?

K: No.

R: It was amazing. That was incredible.

K: Manu was playing? (Manu Katch'; drummer, worked alot with Sting -RR)

R: Yes, together with a.o. Tony Levin and David Rhodes. Paul McCartney. The Beatles!

K: The songwriting excellence. The best songwriters. And when I was young I wasn't into the Beatles. I'm more into them now that I'm older. I was more into R&B when I was younger.

R: Let's see, what else do we have.. Is there something funny you can tell us about having toured in the past, things you've done in the past; ancedotes, something of which you'll say "Yeah, I'll never forget that moment!"

K: (laughs) Oh I remember something, I'll tell you about one moment on the last show of the Nothing Like The Sun tour. It was the last show, so everybody did some funny shit on stage. And they had a little box up by my keyboard, and I didn't know why I had this box there. But when I started playing, there was a naked lady in the box! Only I could see it, though! Dancing and doing all this nasty shit. (starts laughing)

R: Was that in Australia?

K: Yeah, it was in Australia, in Sydney. And I was just trying she would disappear, asking her "What are you doing there!" But nobody could see her but me!

R: A real, naked...

K: Yeah, a naked prostitute, touching herself! (at this moment Kenny pretends having breasts, and starts shaking them in a very teasing way!) I'll never forget that! (starts laughing) I'll never forget that one!

R: I think alot of those things happened during the Nothing Like The Sun tour. There was also a moment when Billy Francis, the tourmanager, came on stage, dressed up as Branford!?!

K: The same concert!! That was the same show. And the monitor guy had pumps on; he was dressed like a lady and stuff. That was the same show. Yeah, that was funny stuff. But it's really good times now with Sting too, you know. And when we did the record at Sting's house, you know, he treated us like family, really nice. He lives in a big, giant castle.

R: Kenny, when you're on tour, obviously, uh.. showtimes from 9 to 11, the soundcheck from 4 to 6; what do you do during the rest of the day?

K: Oh, I have a little keyboard, I try to write stuff. I have a 4-track.

R: You have that with you?

K: Yeah, and I try to put tunes together. But alot of times it's boring. I read alot, you know, and I walk around where I'm at. Sometimes it gets boring. Like off days are boring. I mean, I could check out the cities that I'm in, but otherwise..

R: Do you do that very often? Do you like to go out?

K: Oh yeah! If you're in a place like Amsterdam, or something nice. But if you're like in some weird place like Turku, Finland..! (laughs) I mean, where do you go to? Nowhere! It's just boring and you go crazy. So that gets rough. That's the hardest part of being on the road. But if you're in a nice place.. We were looking forward to coming to Holland, to Amsterdam. It's wild! (laughs)

R: I think that's about it. One more question that I would like to ask you.. what do you think that is it, uh.. what do you add to people's music? Why is Kenny Kirkland asked to be on somebody's record? 'Cause you've worked with an enormous variety of different people; what do they want from you, what do you give them?

K: You know, uh, I think that I take direction well. And alot of times it's people who play really well but they have an attitude or.. but when I get into a situation, I always want to give the person who's music it is, I want to give them what they want. So I guess I'm easy to work with. I try to give people what they want.

R: So, when somebody asks you to, say, work with them on an album, they might give you special ideas of what they want - do you try to bring up other ideas?

K: Yeah, usually they give me freedom to do that, and usually they don't tell me alot of things to do, but if they do tell me, I could usually take direction well, and I try to give them what they wanna hear; try it at least. I think that's what Sting.. alot of times he'll try like 10 different things, but I'll try all of them, you know, and we'll pick out what's the best thing.

R: Is there anybody that you haven't worked with and with whom you would love to work?

K: I would say Peter Gabriel. I really like him. I like his whole vibe.

R: Would you try to approach him? I mean, how does it work? I can imagine that if you would really like to work with him..?

K: I never approached him, but I just.. he knows that I love his stuff, I tell him that whenever I see him. I never approached him, though. It's not like I'm gonna approach him and say "I want to play with you", but if it would happen, I would be happy. I would like to, I really like him, I love his music. He's probably the only one. And in the jazz world Joe Henderson, I really like Joe Henderson alot. Somebody I'd like to work with.

R: I have a short list of names I found but I couldn't find out what was your contribution to these people. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

K: I did an album with them when I first started. It's like their record that they did before they came back (without Neil Young, that is -RR). But it was very limited what I did, just a few songs on the record, yeah.

R: John Scofield?

K: I did his first record. He's a jazz guitar player in New York and I learnt alot of stuff from him.

R: Sonny Rollins.

K: I never played with Sonny Rollins.

R: Bill Harper.

K: Billy Harper, yeah. That's one of the first jobs I did too. He's a saxophone player in the "Trane"; the John Coltrane tradition in New York. He was the one with whom I first started, yeah.

R: Chaka Kahn?

K: I played with her. I love Chaka too, she's mad! But that's years ago too, that's like 10 years ago.

R: Have you done many projects during the last few years?

K: I've done a few jazz records out in L.A. with different people, but I wasn't able to leave L.A., so for alot of projects I had to stay there. So I did a few record things out there; there's a guitar player Mark Whitfield, I did his record and I did alot of things with Branford. And I've done a few recordings with Latin bands, but I haven't done anything other than that. A few sessions, jingles and stuff. That is the other side of music, you know; the boring side.

R: People had to come to the Tonight Show for you to play with them. And you once played there with Sting, right?

K: No, I never played with him on the Tonight Show; that was David. But uh, I got to play with alot of people on the Tonight Show; stars, but it wasn't really alot of fun. This is much more fun.

R: But still, it's a hard life. You travel alot, and eventhough you're staying in nice hotels.

K: Oh yeah. It's not easy.

R: And people come to the show to see Sting, not to see the band.

K: Right. Exactly. Uhm, but when we've finished doing this, I'm probably gonna start with my own band again.

R: Who's in your band?

K: A saxophone player named Kenny Garrett; Jeff "Tain" Watts; and a bass player named Charnett Moffett; and Don Alias, who plays congas and percussion.

R: And you'll be working on another album as well?

K: Yeah. Well, I started already, but I have to finish it when we finish this tour.

R: How far into the recording process are you?

K: Uh, halfway.

K: Well, I better go guys, I have to get ready now for the show.

R: Kenny, thanx VERY much for your time.

K: You have enough?

R: We have more than enough! This is a gift from us, and again thank you for your time and for talking to us. I have a favor to ask however!

K: Right, whatever!

R: I have your album, and I would love you to sign it.

K: Oh sure!

R: Here's the booklet, but don't write in your own face, ok?

K: Right! (laughs) Thank you for buying it. Now I sold 10 copies!

By Robbert and Rogier.

THANK YOU's to Clemens Horn for useful background information, to our friend Hopps, and of course to the Maestro himself, without whom....!

Note: The copyright of this interview is owned by Robbert and Rogier. It may not be published nor copied without our approval. May 20th, 1996.


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