I’ve been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to play/record with some very good drummers over the years. Mel Lewis, Art Blakey, Buddy Rich, Tito Puente, Peter Erskine, Pete Laroca , John Riley, Steve Gadd, and Jack Dejonette to name a few. Will Kennedy is right up there with the best of them. In many ways Will encompasses what all these gentlemen have done, and then gone on to develop a sound and style all his own.
It is said that Tony Williams was able to sit down at a drum kit and emulate the playing of Baby Dodds, Max Roach, Sonny Grier, Art Blakey, Joe Jones, Philly Joe Jones, and Elvin Jones in great detail. He then would turn around and play with a totally distinctive approach we all know so well as the integral part it was in the Miles Davis recordings of the 1960’s and later with his band “Lifetime”. Will is a similar kind of artist, whose sound is so very recognizable, and a big part of the sound of the Yellowjackets.
Will is from Oakland, CA, home of the “East Bay Grease”. There is a particular kind of groove up there that has given flight to Sly and the Family Stone, Tower of Power, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, Larry Graham and Graham Central Station (Will’s brother Hershel play keys in that band). He grew up with the funk in his bones as well as being exposed to Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and other jazz legends by way of his dad’s record collection, and later playing around the bay area. As a result of these disparate influences Will is one of the most well rounded drummers I know. He is equally at home playing funk, straight ahead, afro-cuban grooves, african grooves, hillbilly music, whatever! And he always plays just the right thing, nothing more.
Will’s drumming is dynamic, containing lots of nuance, loud’s and softs, a punchy snare and bass drum energy, a dancing ride cymbal beat, and most importantly,all constructed with lots of space and air between his ideas. He swings as hard as any drummer I’ve ever played with, and like all these other drummers, doesn’t ever crowd his fellow band mates with excess information. Will’s grooves are electrifying, colorful, transparent, and always make the rest of the band sound great.
It is imperative that in a band setting all members are good listeners. Better to understand than be understood from the St. Francis of Assisi prayer pretty much sums it up. A drummer who does not listen can very quickly create volume and bulk that obliterates the band sound. Will never falls prey to this scenario. He lays down a beautiful bed of groove and waits for an opening to contribute a fill or short response, all done within the context of the greater whole. Being that Will is a good composer and pianist, he understands the big picture and always serves the music.
When I was on the Buddy Rich band I began writing my first arrangements.. First and foremost in my mind was the sound of Buddy’s drumming as the catalyst for the crisp energetic band sound. I tried to think of writing something that Buddy would feel comfortable playing, something acknowledging his style that might perhaps push him to play in a different way. In a similar way, when I write for the Yellowjackets I hear Will’s drumming in the musical terrain. I can hear his sound in my head and readily think of musical ideas that fit within this context. The great thing is that Will is so very versatile, one could go in virtually any direction in terms of style and groove.
Finally, Will is a great human being, always on the team trying to make things the best they can be. He is a very grounded person who stays calm amidst the day to day challenges of a life in the music. He’s got a sense of humor through it all. I can imagine Will playing on any project I might do as a band leader, in any style and context.