As is the case with many of the artists we interview on Jazz Speaks, Kenneth Salters has his plate full. While simultaneously teaching through Arts Connection, touring through Europe and Asia, and supporting a wide roster of other artists, Salters recently found the time to release Enter to Exit on Destiny Records. The project enlists a strong and multi-faceted supporting cast in Tivon Pennicott (tenor), Matt Holman (trumpet), Myron Walden (alto, bass clarinet), Aki Ishiguro (guitar), Brad Whiteley and Shai Maestro (piano), Spencer Murphy (bass), and Bridget Kibbey (harp).
A lifelong learner and musical sponge, Salters has been absorbing sound from across the spectrum since he was a kid. He met steel drummer and composer Andy Akiho while studying at the University of South Carolina, and has since worked with Akiho on a number of projects. Salters will be bringing his ensemble to The Jazz Gallery this coming week, with a few subs to the album’s personnel including Chad Lefkowitz-Brown (sax), Katie Andrews (harp), Or Bareket (bass), Ben Eunson (guitar), and Matthew Sheens (piano). We spoke with Salters via phone about his musical influences and compositional approach.
The Jazz Gallery: Enter to Exit (Destiny Records, 2015) featured a large ensemble and plenty of guest artists, including Myron Walden, Shai Maestro, Bridget Kibbey. What kind of statement were you hoping to make with this release?
Kenneth Salters: My background has always been pretty open. I grew up listening to a lot of soul and R&B. I got into jazz in middle school, but I’ve been playing classical percussion from the time I decided to start drums. My college degree is in orchestral percussion. Even then, I always wanted to play everything. I did every ensemble in college, you name it. Percussion ensemble, opera orchestra, philharmonic orchestra, marching band, drum corps, I did it all. I even played with the chorus whenever they needed a percussionist. I love experiencing different genres and cultures, trying to get a taste of everything. When I write music, that’s where I’m coming from. I like to write what I’m hearing, nothing is safe from my ears [laughs].
TJG: On “#1,” I love how you layered different textures with each other, especially when the fully orchestrated drums and distorted guitar arrive. How do you approach phrasing and layering as a drummer and bandleader?
KS: I’ve been writing for a while now, but I feel as though I’m just getting my feet wet, you know? A lot of the time, I’m revisiting past experiences with fresh ears, trying to figure out what feels good and sounds good, and working on what doesn’t sound quite right. I’ve never taken a composition class, but one of my best friends and roommates in college was a fantastic composer, and in New York I lived with Andy Akiho for a long time as well. I learned a lot about counterpoint, layering, and phrasing from those guys. Other than that, I like to listen to music and learn, figuring things out at the piano and making them my own.
TJG: I love your rendition of Dolly Parton’s “Halos and Horns,” complete with a horn arrangement of the harmonized fiddle and vocal melodies.
KS: Yeah, I tried to recreate those vocal parts basically word for word. People were playing country in South Carolina growing up, but it wasn’t as popular as one would think. I think I got into Dolly Parton in college. I admire her; she’s the kind of person who takes what she does very seriously, and is an incredible musician and singer, yet at the same time, never takes herself too seriously.
TJG: It’s rare to meet someone like that, who takes their craft seriously without taking themselves too seriously, even if they’re the practitioner of that craft.
KS: Yeah, absolutely. She’s cultivated that, and has a great work ethic. Her music sounds amazing.
TJG: How did you decide to incorporate the sound of the harp into your ensemble, and what was your connection with Bridget Kibbey?
KS: My first experiences with harp were through playing some of Andy’s music. I did a record with Andy in 2008 or 2009. He had just started at Yale and decided he wanted to put out a record. He used a lot of harp on it, and I think that really influenced me. It has these textures that are delicate and etherial. I asked around for harpists, did some research, put out some feelers, and found Bridget. We basically met in person for the first time at my recording session, though we’d been communicating a lot beforehand. She did a great job.
TJG: What’s your favorite thing about recording at Systems Two?
KS: Oh man. There’s so many things I like about tracking there. I’ve done a few different things there. One thing that’s always consistent is their level of professionalism. Those guys are great; they’re there for you, and are very matter-of-fact, but are super efficient. I like the size of the room as well: It’s rare to see a room of that size in New York. That studio has its own sound simply because of its size. They’ve got everything there, man. I did a recording for a film there, and they had flat screens set up in every isolation booth. Everything was cued up perfectly all the time, the click was always right. It was amazing, I couldn’t believe how perfect it was. We were recording a film by Christine Meisner called Disquieting Nature. It’s a film about the American South, telling the story about the end of slavery and discrimination. We actually went to Berlin and played the score live for the film, which was really fun.
TJG: Putting together a large ensemble is no small feat, and the ensemble you’re bringing to TJG at the end of the month is similar to the one on the record, but has quite a few personnel differences from the album.
KS: From the beginning, I knew that would be the case. This is actually the first time our regular pianist, Brad Whiteley, will miss a gig. Aki Ishiguro also won’t be there, our regular guitarist. Those guys have been there since the beginning, for four or five years. So, the way I handle it is to just make sure I have my act together. I’ve learned that the hard way, as well as the easy way [laughs]. I pride myself on being at least a bit organized. If you ask someone to sub for a gig, give them the music and recordings and anything else they need right away. I make my setlist at least a month in advance of the gig, so when we come to rehearse–which, with eight people, is usually only once–everybody knows what’s going on and is on the same page.
TJG: Was your music written for the ensemble on the record, or did you put together the ensemble after compositions were finished?
KS: In the beginning, I was just getting music out. I was getting some things out of my system. As time went on, I began writing specifically for the band. When I arranged “Halos and Horns,” that was specifically for Myron Walden. I’ve played quite a bit with Myron, and he actually has a group called Countryfied. It’s roots music, it’s the same kind of vibe that’s influenced from country, R&B, and soul. He’s an expert when it comes to that kind of music. So, “Halos and Horns” was right down his alley. I wrote “Flakes” with Aki in mind, where he gets to really create some stuff.
TJG: Will you be playing any new music? And what’s up next?
KS: I’m writing new music now that’s specific to the band, so we’ll be bringing that to the Jazz Gallery on this upcoming gig. I wrote a tune, in the gospel and R&B vibe for Myron. He nails that stuff. Then, almost immediately after the show, I’ll be touring in Europe and China. In the meantime, I’m excited to play my music again, and to be playing new music. I feel like I’m reaching the peak of a sort of flow with my composition. I’m looking forward to the future.
Kenneth Salters’s “Haven” plays at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, October 27th, 2016. The group features Mr. Salters on drums, Myron Walden on alto saxophone/bass clarinet, Chad Lefkowitz-Brown on tenor saxophone, Matt Holman on trumpet/flugelhorn, Ben Eunson on guitar, Matthew Sheens on piano, Katie Andrews on harp, and Or Bareket on bass. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.