LIVE: Kendrick Scott Oracle @ Zankel Music Center, Skidmore College, 11/8/2019
In 1998, a young drummer from Houston, TX named Kendrick Scott attended the Skidmore Jazz Institute along with his friend, saxman Walter Smith III. Scott learned a lot during that two weeks, including what a chipmunk looked like. (“What… is THAT?” Scott deadpanned, re-creating the moment for the almost-full house at Zankel Music Center.) Over twenty years later, Scott paid it forward by returning to Skidmore to teach two days of masterclasses, and to knock us all flat with a mesmerizing performance by his group Kendrick Scott Oracle.
The concept for Scott’s latest Blue Note release A Wall Becomes a Bridge was solidified in the studio after a conversation with producer / fellow Terence Blanchard alum Derrick Hodge: Scott was talking with Hodge about the “walls” we all run into in everyday life, and how we can take the walls (and the insecurities that come with them) and use them as motivation to make breakthroughs in our lives – in essence, turning a wall into a bridge. The result is one of the best jazz discs of 2019, and Scott’s quintet brought that recording to bright, shining life.
Scott started the opener “NewEyes” by triggering sounds and loops from the laptop next to his kit while Shai Maestro played soft chords on his electric keyboard; Scott added to the electric/acoustic tone poem by working his cymbals with soft mallets. Guitarist Mike Moreno added otherworldly chords of his own on top of it all, and then John Ellis came in with the meditative lyric on a soprano sax line that glowed like sunrise.
“NewEyes” and the accompanying Taylor Eigsti piece “Mocean” leads off A Wall Becomes a Bridge, which Scott said he purposely did backwards, starting at “the bridge” and ending at “the wall.” Whether this was to give the disc a positive start or to show that there is always another “wall” waiting around the corner, I don’t know and he didn’t say. Either way, the music did have a harsher base as the concert proceeded. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t beautiful, well-sculpted, or performed with the dexterity expected from these five great artists, but it could explain why Scott called for Jimmy van Heusen’s classic “Darn That Dream” towards the end of the 90-minute concert: Like the protagonist in Scott’s initially relentless “Catalyst”, we needed to “get out of our minds” and take a deep, cleansing breath.
Ellis had the solo on “Darn That Dream” and did some masterful in-the-clear deconstruction before the band hit van Heusen’s piece right on the nose. Ellis played tenor sax for lion’s share of the show, but he could have played baritone kazoo for all any of us cared, because as we saw when he brought his group Double-Wide to Lake George earlier this year, Ellis is a masterful storyteller who grabs your interest and keeps it warm & safe. Moreno is another musical raconteur who was one of the first artists Scott recorded on his World Culture Music label, and – like Ellis – appeared on A Wall Becomes a Bridge, so everything Moreno played was completely simpatico with Scott and his intricate creation.
Maestro has been working on his own engaging music these last couple of years, so it was a treat to see him apply his prodigious talents to Scott’s compositions. Maestro’s jump from electric to acoustic piano on “Mocean” was completely seamless, and he brought a raft of his own ideas to the piece and anything else he touched. Kris Funn plays bass for Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah (another Institute alum), so he’s used to expansive works like this. Funn brought his own exceptional sense of lyric to the party, and his in-the-clear intro to “Voices” was right in line with Scott’s description of “the voices inside our heads that say ‘Go, go, go’ or ‘No, no, no’, and how they can get out of balance.”
Between the righteous set-closer “Cycling Through Reality” and the unnamed killer encore, Scott and his partners got two well-deserved standing ovations. As I usually do whenever I see Skidmore Jazzers perform, I think back to the student recitals I’ve seen at Zankel, and the (mostly) young kids that were finding their feet in this music with varying degrees of success. Which of this year’s crop might be teaching master classes in 2039 is still open to question; all I know is Kendrick Scott seems to have climbed every wall and crossed every bridge, becoming one of jazz’ primetime players in the process. Not bad for someone who didn’t know what a chipmunk looked like until he came to Saratoga Springs.