A lot can happen in a mentorship series.
During her initial hit at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem with Dayna Stephens, Marquis Hill and mentor Kendrick Scott, bass player-composer and multi-instrumentalist Kanoa Mendenhall returned from a post-soundcheck smoothie run to find one of her bass strings had snapped. “It was my first time playing with Kendrick, and I had to play the entire gig with three strings,” she says.
But that night wasn’t the first “first” for the emerging artist out of Monterey. Since graduating from Columbia University last spring, Mendenhall has been out with other young leaders who are swiftly gaining global recognition, including vibraphonist-composer Joel Ross and saxophonist-composer Maria Grand. The Gallery caught up with Mendenhall to discuss her mentorship with Scott and talk engagement, freedom and the art of revival after an injury.
The Jazz Gallery: How did you get started with the mentorship series?
Kanoa Mendenhall: Rio reached out to me. She messaged me, “Do you want to work with Kendrick?” …Oh… Sure… (laughs). I hadn’t met Kendrick, but I was aware of his music and a big fan. So it was interesting the first time we met and talked about this whole series before it started. But yeah, Rio approached me and that’s how it happened.
TJG: I’ve spoken to a number of artists who say they really enjoy playing with you because you have your “own thing happening.” Do you view yourself as an individualist on the bass? Do you have an idea of what they mean when they say that?
KM: I’m not intentionally trying to have my own sound, being different or individualistic. I’m trying to incorporate all the sounds I grew up with [into my playing]. My father’s a jazz pianist; I grew up heavily in the great American songbook tradition. He got me all the tunes, and I worked from a young age learning all these songs by ear. But there are also sounds from my mother’s side; I grew up listening to Japanese enka. It’s like this folk music that my grandma really listened to. So that really influences me—just like the melisma, the singing, all the little inflections. I guess sometimes that comes out in my playing, and all the experiences I’ve had in Japan. I’ve studied some traditional instruments, so I’ve incorporated sounds like strumming and those techniques into my bass playing. I just try to be true to the sound that is in my blood, and try to figure out how to play it.
TJG: What are some of those instruments that you’ve studied? I know you started on cello.
KM: I did. And at one point, my grandma gave me as a present a shamisen. It’s like this three-string banjo kind of thing. Unfortunately, in high school my dad broke it by accident while we were moving, so that didn’t last long. That was sort of my introduction to traditional instruments.
But then in college, at Columbia they have this great world music program. They have traditional Japanese music ensembles, and they give out the instruments. Basically, they let you borrow it for the semester and you can practice. So I took advantage of that and I studied koto with one of my teachers there, Masayo Ishigure. So that sound of the koto is really one of my favorite sounds.
And then I also learned the shō, which is like a mouth organ kind of thing. It sounds like a harmonica but it’s very clean. That is in the gagaku tradition which is this 7th Century music coming from China and Korea that’s been unchanged for centuries through the imperial court. So the theory behind it—all the cluster chords—I’m somehow trying to incorporate into my playing and my compositions. So that’s some of my influences.