A native of South Carolina, drummer Kenneth Salters moved to New York City in 2006 after finishing his undergraduate degree in orchestral percussion at the University of South Carolina. Before long, he was performing and recording with jazz heavyweights like Myron Walden and lending his graceful but strong drumming to rock and indie bands such as Elysian Fields and The Bloodsugars.
In September, Salters released his début album, Enter To Exit, on Destiny Records. The album features a core sextet that first convened in 2008, which is represented on the album by Tivon Pennicott on tenor saxophone, Matt Holman on trumpet and flugelhorn, Aki Ishiguro on guitar, Brad Whiteley on piano, Spencer Murphy on bass, and Salters on drums. With the addition of Myron Walden on alto saxophone and bass clarinet, pianist Shai Maestro on one track, and harpist Bridget Kibbey on several tracks, the album expands the sextet configuration for greater compositional possibilities, showing Salters’s diverse sonic palette culled from an open ear to all genres of music and his background in classical composition.
We caught up with Salters by phone before he makes his first appearance as a leader at The Jazz Gallery, performing new material and some of the music from the album with a sextet that will feature Marcus Strickland and Irwin Hall on tenor saxophone and bass clarinet, respectively.
The Jazz Gallery: When you first came to New York, who were you checking out?
KS: Well, the Brian Blade Fellowship was really hot then. That was before Blade got really busy with doing the singer-songwriter thing and playing with Wayne Shorter. They’d play once or twice a year at the Vanguard, which was always an amazing show. I caught that a couple times.
I was also checking out some Johnathan Blake then, and Ari Hoenig. He’s always been doing his thing, so that was a real eye-opener for me to see him. I wasn’t really aware of what a great musician he was until I got here, and I’ll never forget the first time, which was one of the first shows I saw: Ari and Chris Potter playing duo at the 55 Bar. It was ridiculous.
TJG: You studied orchestral percussion in undergrad.
KS: Yeah, I wanted to do everything. I played in everything from samba school to percussion ensemble to opera orchestra; I even played with show choir! Of course, I did all the other usual stuff like jazz combo and big band, but I was trying to be into everything. At some point in my college career, I decided I wanted to focus on drum set.
TJG: How would you say your study of orchestral percussion informs your kit playing?
KS: I think I got lucky because, as an orchestral percussionist, I had to take a lot of the general ear training, sight-singing, and general theory classes. It’s funny, I’ve never really had a jazz theory class in college, so all my background comes from a counterpoint, classical background as far as composition goes. I was also learning how to play the drum, how to strike the drum, how to move—like, if you’re learning to play marimba, you have to learn how to move on that instrument. It’s like 60 targets in six and a half feet—it’s like dancing—so if you can apply some of that stuff to drum set, it’s going to help you a lot.
TJG: Some listeners might be surprised to find a Dolly Parton cover in the album, and that there’s harp (played by Bridget Kibbey).
KS: When I wrote a lot of these songs, I heard the core band, the sextet sound. I wasn’t just inspired by the Fellowship, but also the stuff Wayne did with the two-horn line-up with Freddie Hubbard, all those records with the two of them playing his tunes. That was a huge influence as far as sound, and that’s kind of how I heard these songs at first. CountI’d done a couple things with harp before, and my roommate was a composer who wrote a lot for harp as well, so as things grew over the years I started hearing harp in these songs.
TJG: Must be hard to get a harp into a club.
KS: It’s pretty tough! I think there’s a little scene as far as people who transport harps, people who do that for a living. We’re going to do something at National Sawdust at the end of April, and she’ll be featured doing her stuff and also playing with my band, so that’ll be really cool.
As far as picking a Dolly Parton cover, I just listen to a lot of different music. I like to put on different stuff from day to day, and Dolly Parton has always struck me not only for her music, but also for her personality. She’s always humble, never takes herself too seriously, is always cordial and funny, never afraid to crack a joke on herself. I think that’s a perfect personality for someone who’s excelling musically like her, and something about the song really rung with me.
TJG: In the album EPK, there’s a brief close-up of you playing with a golf tee or something or other. Could you talk a bit about that, as well as the larger role of golf in your life?
KS: We recorded at Systems Two, and they have this stash of toys that people can play with in the control room, like if someone’s tracking something or so-and-so is doing something. You can pick up one of these toys and play with it while you’re waiting, and one of these things is this golf tee in a snow globe. You have to get the golf ball on the tee, it’s full of water, and you have to get the golf ball on the tee and then stay on there. It’s actually kind of tough. I never mastered the motion of it, but I did get it a couple of times.
I actually really am pretty addicted to golf, sadly.
TJG: I don’t know that many jazz golfers, do you?
KS: You’d be surprised, man. There are a couple guys out there: I’ve played with Dave Stryker, a great guitarist; Jared Gold, a great organist; Dred Scott, a great pianist who plays a lot of golf.
I’ve never played with him, but I know Branford Marsalis has a single-digit handicap, which basically means he’s pretty good, and there’s a slew of other guys, too. One of my closest friends is a pianist named Can Olgun. We play a lot together; I think we play more golf together than music, which isn’t right.
TJG: Are there many connections between golf and jazz?
KS: There are a ton of connections! From a drummer’s standpoint, just the motor skills, and there’s a lot of hand-eye coordination. You kind of hold the golf club as you do a stick, and there are all these little relations that sync up.
In general, golf is really a mental sport. I mean, once you get past the physical part of hitting a golf ball, all the things you would think playing or improvising—you have to deal with on the same thing on the golf course. You may be trying not to play like or sound like someone, but it seems like the more you think of avoiding that person, the more you start to sound like them. The same thing on a golf course, man—the more you try not to think about it, the more you end up doing it. There’s ton of weird little things like that.
As far as being a successful musician, one of the biggest things is to stay positive, and it’s something that’s really tough to do. When you’re playing 18 holes, it’s sometimes really hard to stay positive through the whole thing.
I don’t know if I would recommend golf, because it’s really time-consuming to be good at it, but for me it’s really a great escape, to be outside, especially when the weather’s really nice. To be outside for four or five hours is really great.
Kenneth Salters performs at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, January 14th, 2016. The performance will feature Salters on drums, Marcus Strickland on tenor saxophone, Irwin Hall on bass clarinet, Aki Ishiguro on guitar, Brad Whiteley on piano, and Spencer Murphy on bass. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $15 general admission, FREE for Members. Purchase tickets here.