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.
TJG: Now I understand why your bandmates say, “She has her own thing” — it’s a short way of explaining what you just described.
KM: (Laughs) It’s not really my own thing; it’s looking back centuries ago. It’s so crazy. If you have a chance, I would suggest—I mean, it doesn’t sound anything like modern music. It’s of another world, really.
TJG: It’s cool that you’re bringing this centuries-old lineage into your present experiences.
TJG: It’s interesting that you talked about the harmonic influences of those cluster chords and the melodic —I think you mentioned melisma of one of the traditions.
KM: Yeah, the singing and also the lyrics of this enka music—it’s very emotional. It kind of sometimes resembles the blues. People compare it sometimes, but it comes from a folk tradition in Japan. So that’s the music I grew up with (laughs).
TJG: From time to time I interview artists from the Brooklyn Raga Massive, and they have a similar perspective on the ragas and elements the blues. Seems like you can find those elements in every centuries-old tradition.
TJG: I appreciate you taking us through that lineage. I now want to jump to this mentorship series. In what ways do you feel playing so closely with Kendrick has challenged you technically, or maybe compelled you to up your game as a technical player?
KM: Yeah, for me, technique is something I’m really trying to work on. I didn’t grow up with consistent bass teachers. I started on cello so I took most of that technique from cello and got all squirrelly and my foundation wasn’t that great. So now I’m trying to fix that. Especially playing with Kendrick, it gets intense many times, and endurance in general is something I’m trying to work on. I’m trying to exert the least amount of effort in order to get what I want out as effortlessly as possible. [I don’t want to be] trying harder than necessary. I could have said that better (laughs). But yeah, that’s something I’ve been trying to work on.
TJG: Has he helped you with any of that directly, or are you more trying to pace yourself?
KM: More the latter, I think. I haven’t really talked to him yet about bass-specific things, energy-wise. But he’s said many helpful things about the bass role—just being simple, and that simple is good because it leads to complexity many times. So I’ve been trying to be as clear and succinct as possible.
TJG: Kendrick is arguably a master of engagement.
TJG: As an artist, he’s captivating, but also as a presence. He holds and evolves the focus of his audiences, and also his bandmates. And you seem to have that natural ability, as well. What have you observed about his approach to engagement that has had an influence on your own approach?
KM: He’s always engaged, whether it’s as simple as visual cues with the rest of his bandmates or musically. He pushes someone’s idea further, really uplifts them and carries over the ideas to places that maybe one wouldn’t have intended. He’s always engaged and looking at each [bandmate] which I’ve been trying to work on myself. From a young age, I thought, “Oh bass is cool. It’s in the background. I can just do my thing here and not really care—it’s not a visual thing, we don’t have to check in on each other. It’s all about the sound, right?” No. It really does make a difference when people are looking at each other, checking in. And he uplifts others onstage, and somehow highlights and projects the energy that’s happening amongst the musicians outwards, and encapsulates that for the audience, which really brings it to a high level. I also love when he sings melodies.
TJG: Me too.
KM: Yeah, so I feel like that’s really engaging, too. It inspires me a lot.
TJG: You mentioned you’ve observed how he will evolve someone else’s idea. Has observing that part of his artistry given you more confidence to do that when you’re playing with say, Maria’s project or with Good Vibes?
KM: For sure. It definitely has. And I’m trying to stick with ideas even if initially I don’t think it’s good. I try to develop it, and elevate the others in the band somehow by sticking with ideas. Kendrick’s been really helpful with points like that.
TJG: So you feel like the mentorship series, overall, has increased your sensitivity as a player.
KM: Sure, yeah. It definitely has made me more aware of my role, functionality.
TJG: I did want to talk specifically about Joel Ross and Good Vibes. How would you say your identity within that tight sort of insular union has evolved as a result of working with Kendrick?
KM: From the beginning, since I joined Good Vibes, I always felt I was part of the unit. I still do. But working with Kendrick has made me, as I said, think of the function of the instrument and how the way I play affects the whole group, the whole sound. I’m really trying my best to blend in to the group—to the environment—and adapt to the circumstance. I’m trying to make the whole group sound the best, not trying to stick out. So that’s my identity: one band, one sound, as we say (laughs).
TJG: I think a lot of folks would describe you as this deliberate, intentional player, and now I feel like I have more insight hearing the history of where your sounds are coming from. And you always seem to have an idea of where you’re taking the music. But you also seem to stay very alert and receptive to what’s happening around you. I don’t know whether this question relates to the concussion you received earlier in the year, but what’s been most challenging this past year that has really pushed you to stretch outside your zone of comfort in a live setting?
KM: It does have some relation to the concussion, for sure. But I think the challenge for me has been trying to be more deliberate. One of my goals was just to be more honest and clear about my ideas. But then also, growing up in middle school and high school, learning the instrument, I’d try to prepare as much as possible. I’d think of ideas beforehand, but that really doesn’t work anymore. I think it’s best to start with a clean slate. Especially this year, after graduating I got a lot of opportunities to tour and perform all of a sudden. It was hard; I had to learn—and I’m still trying to learn—how to focus while playing in so many different settings and atmospheres. Every day is different. I’m trying not to be distracted by the environment. Just centering myself in the present moment is something I’m trying to work on. I feel like conscious breathing has helped me a lot.
Speaking more to the concussion, the directly falling incident, every time I was thinking and every time I was listening to music, my brain physically hurt. It was just painful. It felt like knives jabbing (laughs). I thought, “How can I play music when I feel like this?” So I just tried to clear out space and start from a clean, blank space and play from that, which is hard when I’m prone to prepare things beforehand. I’ve found that that’s actually really helped my playing overall; I feel like I connect more to the present now.
TJG: When an artist has that revelation that they don’t have to “prepare” in the way that they used to think they had to, do you feel as though there’s more freedom in terms of what can happen when they’re not holding onto some prefabricated idea?
KM: Yeah (laughs). Yeah. There’s freedom for sure. And that’s the meaning of my name, The Free One.
TJG: Ah, cool!
KM: So I’m trying to be more free with my playing.
TJG: What’s been most surprising to you about this mentorship series?
KM: I envisioned it being me playing in Kendrick’s group—playing his music as part of his band Oracle, and I’m the bass player. “Cool. I get to play his music.” That’s what I thought most of it would be. But I was surprised when he said, “No, I wanna hear your vision, your voice, what you wanna do. I wanna hear your compositions.” No one really asked me that before. I’m always a sideperson, and I’ve not had much experience writing on my own. It’s been four years since I wrote my last tune. So just the amount of support I got from Kendrick, it was really inspiring. It was surprising at first.
TJG: Did that response from him compel you to think about yourself as an artist and your own artistry in a different way or in a more urgent kind of way?
KM: It definitely made me think about what I wanna do in the future—what my own projects would be like. Right now I’m just trying to focus on the present, just swimming along (laughs). That’s my focus right now. But it made me think, “What do I really wanna do in 10 years?”
TJG: And what about the series has been most valuable in your opinion?
KM: Just the experience of playing with Kendrick and all the amazing artists he’s called. Each time, the band is different—there’s different dynamics. It’s been valuable just to see how each time it’s different—the setting is different, the set list is different. And the whole experience, the opportunity has been valuable.
The Jazz Gallery Mentoring Series presents: Kendrick Scott + Kanoa Mendenhall performing at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019. The group features Mr. Scott on drums, Ms. Mendenhall on Bass, Aaron Parks on piano and John Ellis on saxophone. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $25 reserved table seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.