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Kenn Smith


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Kenn Smith is a Chicago-based guitar/bass doubler who’s been on the scene since 1989. It all began when he attended Proviso East High School and was honored with both the guitar and bass chair in the school’s Jazz Band. He later studied classical guitar with Bruce Walters, and in his senior year Kenn was awarded the Louis Armstrong Jazz Award. Influenced by the likes of UK, RUSH, YES, BRAND X, Weather Report, Pat Metheny, John McLaughlin, Alan Holdworth and later John Scofield, Kenn has gone on to perform with the top R&B, Funk, and Rock groups in the nation, and abroad. After a few years of college and playing in a variety of bands, he decided to go back to school and study jazz composition. His career began as a freelance jazz guitarist, playing styles ranging from be-bop to alternative rock, and has since shared stages with Tower of Power, Stanley Turrentine, and Stanley Jordan.

Though most of Kenn’s career to date has been focused upon the guitar and composition, he has found a more recent home as a fretless bassist, and he now features his melodic fretless lines on his solo discs. Kenn’s decision to play bass isn’t as sudden as it appears, and he describes the process and resulting decision to feature the bass in this way,

"Although most of my career has been devoted to guitar and composing, these days I find myself more devoted to the low end. The last five years have been spent in the woodshed with a bass. I've always played, but never felt like a complete bassist - especially in the area of jazz.

As my composing and guitar skills grew my bass skills fell behind. So I recently decided to improve my skills as a bassist. I started with the 4 string… working my way up to the 6 string fretless - as I've always been a big fretless fan. I never felt comfortable with a low B, but I love the idea of the high C. I finally settled on a fretless 5 string tuned E,A,D,G,C - after meeting Jazz Fusion Bassist Matthew Garrison, who came to town with John Scofield.

I had a chance to sit and talk with him, and ask about his choice of basses, technique and all the benefits for his choice of tuning. As he began to explain, he took his bass from the stage for me to try. A nerve was stuck and the next day I changed my tuning! The experience turned out to be a true blessing."

At the time of this interview, Kenn is in the midst of recording a disc that will heavily feature the fretless bass as the lead voice. He was also kind enough to send me a CDR of 5 of the tunes, and I admit, this is a bass heavy disc! Each of the tunes he sent displays the gorgeous sound of his fretless Karl Hoyt and Lakland 5-strings.

I also greatly appreciate the fact that Kenn is more so bent toward the idea of writing tunes… versus slamming a bunch of useless riffs into a 4-minute form, and calling it a "song". Here’s what we chatted about…

 BAJ: Talk to me, Kenn! How is the guitar world taking your recent decision, and how do you perform your tunes live?

 KS: Some of my guitar fans don't know yet. But, the ones who know think it's cool, and they are really looking forward to hearing me as a bassist. One reason I decided to do the "Bass CD/group" project, is because of requests from my students, friends, and also some of my newer fans. It's like God was speaking through them, and telling me what my next direction should be! It's also fun building a new fan base. I'm picking up new fans all the time from my clinics and master classes.

As for performing and recording, I keep it pretty simple... I use the same instrumentation live that I use in the studio. For most sessions it's just me and a drummer, or some type of drum programming. I usually play the keyboard parts, using a midi guitar. On other occasions I may put a band together, and for the new disc I'm using a band. That way, I can concentrate more on the music… and my bass playing.

 BAJ: I know we’ve talked about this before… But, hip our readers to your life as a Black RUSH fan growing up in the Chicago area! Also, elaborate on the current state of the music scene in Chicago, and the inherent benefits and detriments of being a musician in that area.

 KS: It was cool… really cool! I became a RUSH fan in high school and back then there was no

black and white, really… just a bunch of kids who were into music. We listened to everything! We didn't see race in one another. Just guitars, basses, drums… and the dream of becoming a star! Some people tripped, but not those who listen to them. RUSH RULES!

 BAJ: Man, I gotta tell ya’… After chatting with you a couple times, I pulled out Rush’s "Signals", and listened to it again for the first time in years! It brought back so many memories! That era between "Permanent Waves" and "Grace Under Pressure", is still my personal favorite! Though, "Hemispheres", is one of the deadliest albums on my list. You know? I digress. Thanks to turning me on again, cat.

Back to the interview… It appears that you write from the standpoint of a sound you hear – which, is a very organic (and often overlooked) approach to writing! How do you apply that idea and incorporate it into the concepts you learned in your studies of Jazz Composition?

 KS: Organic, that's a cool description, thanks. The music comes from me... first. Through my soul’s, sometimes, out of control imagination - a nightmare or a wonderful dream, for instance. I, then, use my composition skills to communicate that particular musical thought to others. When you'll a soulful, spiritual being, sometimes it's hard to communicate to others what you're feeling! You know? As you know, the tools of composition are key to articulating your intimate, personal self-expression.

 BAJ: What is your amplifier set-up like, now that you’re carrying both guitar and bass rigs to live performances? Do the two systems interface, at all?

 KS: My main rig is a Ampeg B2R, with 2 Bag End 1-12 cabinets. When I need more power I rent an SWR 6-10 cabinet, and an SM-900 amplifier!

 BAJ: YIKES! That’s "power"! Your website features a couple shots with a gorgeous acoustic contra bass! Do you play the acoustic?

 KS: Yep, every chance I get. I'm more of an electric bassist… but that will soon change. I'm focusing on my upright chops as we speak! I love the way the instrument feels. When you're playing a ballad, it's like dancing with a beautiful, voluptuous woman! When you're swinging, it's like hugging your best friend. The vibrations seem to go through your body straight to your soul. It's a very personal instrument. There will be some upright on the new CD!

 BAJ: We’ve also been chatting about your idea of building an electric violoncello! How’s that going, and when will we get to hear that!?

 KS: Well, I'm still working on that idea... I got the idea while listening to my favorite cellist, Yo Yo Ma. Basically, it's a fretless 5 or 6-string tuned in 5th's. But, if possible, I would also like it to have some of the characteristics of an acoustic cello!

I just thought it would be fun to play in a different tuning. It's been my experience that when you're learning, or experimenting with other instruments, it makes you that much better at what you do! It's like learning a new language, or studying a new culture – ’new’ to one’s self, anyway. I've been doing it all my life! While in the high school, being in most of the bands at my school, I had an all-excess pass to the instrument rooms. I tried to play everything: cello, sax, oboe, etc. It was a fun time. I'm working on design and exploring other ideas… so it will be a while.

 BAJ: How do you facilitate doubling with your overall playing approach? Are there areas that cross-pollinate the playing of both instruments? Or, do you simply approach each instrument individually?

 KS: Individually. I’ve never played both on a single gig – which helps. One night it's bass… the next, it's a guitar gig. Occasionally, I have had guitar and bass gigs in a single day! But, it's not like Genesis' Mike Rutherford’s thing. I plan to have two bands: one, as guitarist, and the other, as bassist. That way, when I'm playing bass... I'm a bassist, and vice versa. Keeping the bands completely separate, in a sense.

Being a guitarist does help me melodically and harmonically. But, in the same way, playing guitar helps anyone in the same way as a player who also sings, or plays piano. Players must learn to respect each instrument for what it is, first, then expand or compare it to the other instruments in the spectrum. When I'm in the studio doing my stuff, I'm able to switch mind-sets between the two instruments… It's like having two brains! 

 BAJ: Will you take the new project out for a small tour?

 KS: Yes, I plan to do a small club tour. I may take a keyboardist, instead of another guitarist, or both. We'll see... I have no problem playing with other guitarists. The only thing that matters to me is the kind of person, musically, the other musicians are! Where the heart’s at… and, are you cool! I don't want any bad vibes in the band! A few people have had more problems with me doing both guitar and bass. It's all music to me. A true gift!

 BAJ: What bassists are you listening to these days, and why?

 KS: Gary Willis, for his tone, tasteful melodic bass lines, and solos. Jaco, for his spirit. Alain Caron, because I’ve never heard anyone play a fretless 6-String like that! The man is blessed. James Jamerson… for what he gave to Motown, and to the rest of the world. Geddy Lee, because he is progressive rock’s Bass King. Percy Jones… for his feel, tone, and imagination. Ray Brown, Ron Carter, Percy Heath, and Rufus Reid… for giving us the blessing called "Jazz Bass", and doing as much as they have to document the subject.

 BAJ: Well said, Kenn!

How do you market your discs, and how does being a solo artist balance against also being a first-call sideman?

 KS: I market the discs by way of the internet, through and, mailing list, clinics and other live performances. As for being an artist-sideman, it's always worked out. It’s just a matter of keeping things in order schedule-wise. I'm working more towards being a full time artist/composer… I’ve been a freelance player for 15 years, so I just want to do my thing for a while.

 BAJ: You’ve been teaching a series of clinics around the Chicago Metropolitan area. How can interested parties get information about your clinics? And, would you give our readers your contact information? Thanks!

 BAJ: What happening in the next year, Kenn?

 KS: Recording, clinics, playing some great bass, loving life and all it has to give.

 BAJ: You’ve written a book, too! Tell us how to get that!

 KS: I'm working on two new method books for bass. "My First Bass Book" and "The Book of Grooves". Both are for beginners and intermediate players. Both books are due out this spring! You'll also be able to order them from my website, which is, once again: . . . Also, check out Kenns Myspace page:

Thanks for taking a few minutes to speak with us! You’re going to go far, and please remember to stop by Global Bass Magazine from time to time, and check in!


Brent-Anthony Johnson is a Bassist/Composer/Producer who co-leads the group Sonal Anu. The group’s premier disc, "Sleep Drum" will be released before Christmas 2001, and he can be reached at his website at: BAJ currently endorses Aguilar Amplifiers, HotWires Strings, Line 6, PRO TEC Cases, and Status Graphite Bass Guitars.

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