"Jazz Monthly.com Feature Interview"
Jazz Monthly: One of my alltime favorite musicians in the world joins me at JazzMonthly.com. I go way back with this cat. I go all the way back to 1988, when he released Pensyl Sketches No. 1, and it’s always been a thrill whenever he comes out with a new album. I’m still diggin’ his “3 Day Weekend” album.
Kim Pensyl (KP): Oh yeah.
Jazz Monthly: Yes indeed. And one of my favorite songs alltime is “Sweet Spot.” (Both laugh.) And now he has just released his 14th album. Can you believe that? It is called When Katie Smiles. Please welcome the with the explosive vibrato Mr. Kim Pensyl. Kim, how ya doing, my friend?
KP: Doing great. Well, thank you, Smitty. I sure appreciate you having me on Jazz Monthly and it’s so nice to have a new album out in the contemporary jazz format and it’s been too long since I’ve had one out.
JM: Yeah, I was gonna say “Hey, where you been?” (Both laugh.)
KP: I’ve been making music, lots of music. I just haven’t been recording as much as I did when I was doing pretty much an album every year. And early on there I was trying to do production for about six months out of the year, the writing and all, then all the recording, and get the record out there and do some touring, and then go right back at it. That slowed down a little bit and I also picked the trumpet back up, actually during the Acoustic Alchemy tour I did with them back in ’93 or ’94, and so I started doing some more straight ahead jazz projects.
JM: Yeah. Some great stuff.
KP: Well, thanks. I love all jazz music, whatever the style. I’ve certainly spent a lot of time in all the styles of jazz from bebop to hard bop to straight ahead and free jazz to fusion to contemporary smooth jazz that we play. I like it all.
JM: Yeah, so do I. (Both laugh.) Amen!
KP: And then you listen to Duke Ellington, even in 1927 on East St. Louis Toodle-Oo and you realize how great that music is, and you listen to when he did Indigos some 75 plus years ago and you realize how great that stuff is, and so we’re just trying to make great music today.
JM: Yes indeed. And speaking of that, you’re one of the most versatile artists I know and over the years you have created some incredible music. I mean, you’ve been on the charts, all over the charts, at Billboard, you’ve had albums in the Top 10 numerous times.
KP: Yeah, I really have been. I’m feeling very fortunate to have four records that were in the Top 10 at Billboard and the majority of them were Top 10 at radio as well, Radio & Records and all that. I think if I summed it up with one word it would be “melody.”
KP: If I have one gift that I’m very proud of, it’s the gift of being able to write a good melody.
JM: Yes indeed, and this new album is so evident of that. From the very beginning, the melodies are incredible. I said to myself “This stuff is like nitro, it’s so good.” (Both laugh.)
KP: Well, I’m so glad you like it. I’m so glad people are embracing the music because number one, it takes a lot of effort to get the music from the whole production standpoint and recording, but it’s also the joy of actually communicating with another person like you. I’m communicating with you via the music and the melody is the key of that and all the production, everything else, that’s the frame of the landscape that it sits in, and the melody’s like the entrée of the beautiful dinner you have.
KP: And so all the tunes revolve around that. So that’s what I’m trying to communicate with people and if they are touched by that, then that’s what I’m hoping for….someone will be moved by the music because that’s why I’m making the music, to communicate.
JM: I can dig that.
KP: So it’s not an experiment, it’s an expression, and jazz gives you that freedom to express yourself.
JM: And you’ve been so great at doing that and so consistent over the years because now I can go back to 1988 to your debut album, Pensyl Sketches No. 1, which is again one of my favorite albums, and I can read the quote that you have in the liner notes of that album and it talks identically about that.
KP: Oh, I can’t even remember what I said.
JM: Yes, well, let me just read it (both laugh) because I love this, I love the quote, and then when I read the quote in the new album, it mirrors that to a degree, but it’s the consistency of the message and your expression of why you are making music that is so evident. Now, I’m gonna read from Pensyl Sketches No. 1 in 1988. It says “When artists draw upon their special gifts to communicate, no matter what medium, they strive to touch our hearts and minds, to forge a common bond. Such communication is difficult to achieve, but very special because it provides a glimpse of the artist’s soul. My music is an essential part of my being-- an artistic, emotional, and intellectual portrait which I offer to you.”
JM: Yeah, you know? Over 20 years ago, you said this. It says “Listen to my feelings. We may share that common bond.” I mean, that is so consistent with the great message that you have in this new album, because there you talk about communicating feelings, freedom of expression, and you talked about how it was a communication of feelings of your life experiences. And we know you’ve had a lot of experiences.
KP: My goodness me. That is so neat. I guess I haven’t read that in so long, but it is true. At least I do stay on point and I think that’s important because that’s what the music’s for.
JM: Exactly, so yeah.
KP: Wow. That’s pretty neat.
JM: Yeah, it’s very cool and when I was listening to all of your music and just exploring the liner notes and the albums and exploring the music too, just listening to those great lush chords and melodies, I said “Wow, this is the Kim I remember so well.” (Both laugh.)
KP: Well, I’m glad it reaches you. I’m very happy for that.
JM: Yes, and I love the new single, “Slap Happy.” What a great single. And I know the world’s going to embrace that song as well as the entire album because it really sets the tone for the entire project and it really bespeaks who you are as a person and an artist.
KP: Well, thanks. I like to intersperse groove with the harmonies you discussed and then have the top layer of the melody be the kingpin for the whole thing, but the underlying groove has to be stronger. Luckily I got some guys that I play with that I really enjoy playing with and some of them are a little hard to get together all the time because the drummer [Reggie Jackson] plays with Diane Schuur, the singer.
KP: So he’s out a lot. And Kevin, the guitar player, Kevin Turner, he’s out with Kirk Whalum a lot. Wasn’t Kirk originally from Texas, wasn’t he? I think he lives in Nashville now.
JM: Well, he’s originally from Memphis.
KP: Oh, Memphis, okay.
JM: Yeah, but he went to college in Texas and of course that is where he met Bob James and the story goes on, but he spent a lot of time in Texas and in fact he really got a nice foothold on his career while in Texas.
KP: Yeah, I guess that’s where I first caught up with him, then.
JM: Yeah, oh yeah, that’s when his name really started to resound throughout the music world was while he was in Texas.
JM: But I remember when he was in Texas when you could catch him at some of the local clubs and everybody knew he was going to go places because he was such a passionate player.
KP: He has a sound too. I love his sound.
JM: Yes, he has a great sound. I’ve had so many people tell me, other musicians, that say that when they first heard him on the radio they had to look him up and find him because it was just a sound that they had not heard in some time, so yeah, Kirk had made quite an impression on a lot of people, including his peers.
KP: Well, yeah, the guitar player that plays with me, he plays a lot with Kirk and then Reggie Jackson plays a lot with Diane Schuur, so when we get some touring dates together, hopefully they can work around our scheduling dates because the guys that played on the record I really want to play the live dates with us because there’s a real chemistry and communication between the guys playing the music that’s kind of a musical telepathy that makes the music a step above.
JM: Absolutely, and speaking of that, when I listened to the title track of this new record, you can really feel that because, wow, that is just such a wonderful track. That’s gotta be the No. 2 single, right?
KP: That’s the No. 2 single. Yeah, that’s right. And Katie is my daughter and when Katie smiles, it makes me smile.
JM: Oh yes, daughters are special, yes indeed. Kim, I want to talk about something that you mentioned earlier and that was the trumpet because that was your first instrument, right?
KP: Yeah, I started in grade school on trumpet and that was my instrument I’ve spent my time practicing and getting all my musicality stuff worked out on, and I picked up piano because of the harmony. I started hearing chords, hearing other music, hearing what are these chords? What’s this harmony? And I’m still intrigued to this day by what colors harmony does for me. I see colors, I feel colors with certain chords, especially chords with upper extensions. They provide the whole visual landscape for me in these colors and I still love that. So that’s where the piano came into play and I’m lucky enough to have this touch that, you know, I mean, a piano player, you’re playing on the same instrument and yet you can tell when Joe Sample plays, you can tell when Bob James plays, you can tell hopefully when I play, and the list goes on….you can tell when Herbie’s [Hancock] playing, and you can tell the difference between Bud Powell and Bill Evans, and it’s all based on the touch.
JM: Yes, so true.
KP: And luckily I have a defining touch on the piano, but yeah, trumpet was the first instrument and I played in a lot of big bands and played in a lot of small group jazz stuff, and I really loved that too. I loved playing everything from the hard bop tunes up to some Wayne Shorter stuff.
KP: Yeah, I love that stuff.
JM: Now you’re talkin’ my language! (Both laugh.)
KP: I teach at the University of Cincinnati, the College Conservatory of Music, and the jazz studies program that is one of the Top 10 in the country, and so the level of the students there is incredible.
JM: Very cool!
KP: And I really enjoy the interaction of teaching and spending the whole day just discussing jazz and playing jazz and getting better at jazz because there’s a whole world of music that can fit, I mean, there’s a lot of room for students today to pick what kind of jazz music they want to play. I love the teaching aspect of it and I love the writing and the playing.
JM: Yes, so talk to me about when you first picked up the trumpet in grade school and now you’re at the other end of the spectrum and now you’re teaching. Do you incorporate some of the methods and some of the techniques of learning back then to dispensing that to your students today?
KP: Well, I do to the extent of I always quiz them on a couple of details first because one of the biggest things I tell all of them is that if you want to play jazz music, if you want to play music in general, you need to love the music because nothing else—if you really love the music, you can make a career out of it, because if you don’t love the music, then other hardships will get in the way at some point and it won’t mean enough for you to sustain through those periods.
JM: Profoundly true.
KP: But if you love the music and that is your deep passion, then that overrides everything. That overrides the fact that I’m gonna practice six hours a day for a year and a half straight because that’s what I have to do to get to the level I need to get to on the instrument, and that kind of thing. It doesn’t matter because you’re on a goal, you’re on a pursuit. I want to be sure that the students understand the dedication they have to have to play this music because John Coltrane spent 12 hours a day working on his craft and he didn’t let anything go to waste. And the guys that spent the time to perfect themselves and play the music and do it as well that you can play it, they didn’t leave anything to chance.
So these students who come in here, if you’re gonna play this music today, you have to have a serious level of dedication and want to do this because, number one, the music is hard but, number two, the best part of it is when you can express yourself where the, let’s say the notes don’t matter, it’s the expression, you aren’t thinking “C sharp minor flat 5 is A minor 7, what am I going to play?” You’ll get past the, you know, we study this stuff now, you have these options, these options, blah-blah-blah, these patterns you can play. Well, that all goes away when you’re really playing music. That stuff has to be in there so deep that you just draw upon that.
KP: So those are some of the things that I try to do right away and, I mean, there are several ways to do it, but it’s a serious business and there are some really great young musicians coming up you’re gonna be hearing about because there’s some big talent out there.
JM: Oh, there is, and I wish we could provide more of a medium for them, and it’s incredible what you hear now from some of the young musicians and it always gets me excited, yeah.
KP: Yeah, it’s exciting and I also have a graduate class that I do, an analysis class that’s very deep, and then at the end of the year-long session we need to spend time talking about how the method for delivering music today is so different than it was when Pensyl Sketches No. 1 came out as far as record labels go, as far as Internet goes, and downloading on Internet sites, and it’s a whole new world for the record industry, if you want to call it that. So they need to be aware of that as well. In some ways, there’s many more opportunities and some ways if everybody has a My Space site, how can you get traffic to notice you? And the whole history where labels would in some ways kind of nurture you along for a career, that kind of thing, well, as you probably already know, that’s not done in the jazz world these days too much.
KP: But not like it was.
KP: It started the same in even bop and rock where they would give an artist a couple albums to develop their songwriting skills and get out there and get their name noticed. Now it’s you gotta do it right now, and it’s a different world but it can be exciting.
JM: Well, it sounds like a fun gig you have.
KP: Yeah, well, I spend my whole day around music.
JM: Yes, when did you discover the passion to play music? Because it always starts out you’re taking lessons. Was the passion there instantly or did you discover at some point later on “Man, I love this stuff”?
KP: Well, the initial passion was being so intrigued by that, as I even say in my long biography on my Web site, that it really happened listening to Herb Alpert play trumpet with the Tijuana Brass.
JM: Oh yeah!
KP: I said “I wanna play the trumpet. I wanna do that.” So that was the initial thing and three lessons and then I played bass guitar and then I played piano, and I was writing big band charts in high school and somewhere right around the end of high school, end of college that I knew for sure there wasn’t gonna be anything else.
KP: And I know it’s hard to believe it was “X” number of years ago. (Both laugh.)
JM: I like that.
KP: Yeah, but it’s true that passion is still there. I absolutely love music.
JM: Well, it is so evident and I think anyone that listens to your new album, When Katie Smiles, they will know that the passion is still there because it is so evident and you can feel it in the music. In fact, you see colors when you’re playing different chords and different melodies. When I first listened to When Katie Smiles, I kept saying to myself “I know he’s smiling while he’s playing this.”
KP: You’re absolutely right.
JM: It sounds so much—I could feel you having a great time with this album. You could feel that, yeah. So yes, the passion is still there and we’re all overjoyed that you still have that great passion to make great music because that is exactly what you have done with this latest album, my friend.
KP: Well, thank you so much, Smitty. I hope I can get down your way to see you.
JM: Yeah, man.
KP: It would be fun.
JM: It would be fun. Bring that Steinway with you! (Both laugh.)
KP: We’ll do that and we’ll bring the group down and play some of the tunes live for the people.
JM: Yeah, I remember years ago you did Rockefeller’s.
KP: Oh yes.
JM: Yeah, that was “X” number of years ago.
KP: Yeah, that was in the 90’s, as they say.
JM: Yeah, what a fun time, man. That was so much fun. Well, I am so excited about this new record, man. I love the album cover. Great shot of you on the back of the album, and you’ve got that astute, studious, serious, let’s get down kind of look, you know? And just throughout the album there’s so much to appreciate and to love about this great album. Thank you so much for doing it, congratulations on it, and I wish you all the best with it, and hopefully we will get to hang out a little bit at a gig soon.
KP: Yes! Many musical thanks to you.
JM: Oh, man, my pleasure. All right, we’ve been talking with the incredible Kim Pensyl. His great new album is called When Katie Smiles and let me tell you, it will make you smile to hear this fantastic record because it is 11 beautiful tracks and I highly recommend it. Kim, thanks again, my friend, and all the very best.
KP: Thank you.