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Kai Eckhardt

 

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Respect the Flow

by Brent-Anthony Johnson

Since Kai Eckhardt graduated in 1987 from Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA, he has become a refreshing new voice on the bass guitar scene. Kai’s first notable gig was as bassists in a trio with guitarist John McLaughlin and drummer Trilok Gurtu. Though, by that time, he had already established himself on the East Coast scene with Bob Moses, Tiger Baku, Randy Brecker, and also with Stanley Clarke! In the following years since that trio he has been a featured sideman with groups as diverse as Steve Smith’s Vital Information, Billy Cobham's International Quartet, and Boulder, Colorado’s World Music group, Curandero. Curandero’s disc, "Aras" features Kai’s solo bass impromptu composition, "Brenda", and some of the best soloing on bass guitar in recent years!

Since 1993, and after a period of musical study, the mild-mannered, soft-spoken bassist has directed his focus toward composition, and also toward developing a unique thumb-style approach to the bass guitar. His compositions and arrangements have been performed by the vocal ensemble SoVoSo, and more recently, the reunited Count’s Jam Band – with original members Larry Coryell and Steve "The Count" Marcus being rounded out by drummer Steve Smith, and Kai. He ended the century and millennium as a member of Trilok Gurtu’s band, The Glimpse, and has since focused on his own formidable talents. 

In 1994, the government of the United States granted the German-born bassist the status of U.S. Resident, based on his extraordinary abilities as an artist. With a discography that touts the Who’s Who of electric Jazz-Fusion and World Music, Kai is also known for his outstanding musicianship and his unique ability to blend ethnic musical styles ranging from funk to Indian classical, into something all his own. 

I met and played with Kai during his time with Curandero, in 1997, and we have been friends from that time. If you read the biographical section of my website, you will also see that I site him as a teacher. As was the case when he spent several months in Boulder as a member of Curandero, he calls the San Francisco Bay area, "home".

We hadn’t talked for quite awhile, and I was absolutely thrilled to hear of the release of his premier solo disc, "Honour Simplicity…Respect the Flow"! I immediately jumped at the chance to discuss that project, and to catch-up with a long-time friend! During our lengthy conversation, we also discussed his recent work with the band Garajmahal – in which, Kai also provides lead vocals – and about a number of other projects he’s involved in! Here’s what we talked about… 

BAJ: Hey man! The times are really good for you, these days! I’ve read interviews in Bass Player and in BASSICS magazines in the past couple months. Congratulations on the good press, my friend! Also, congratulations on the release of "Honour Simplicity… Respect the Flow" and on the forthcoming Garajmahal disc! That’s really cool, and it’s good to see that you’re everywhere!

Let’s begin by talking about the importance of balance, vision, and how you’re walking into this new century. 

Kai: Balance and vision are two things as important as food and sleep. Without balance we become victims of polarity, victims of extremes. Extremes are always tempting because of the amount of electricity they can produce. But in the long run, they lead to a premature burnout.

Without vision, we become blind sheep easily to be exploited or even worse: Blind leaders!

I understand balance as the guiding principle of the human spirit. The balance between family and career… between work and recreation… between give and take, and also night and day. "The

Elements" etc. The examples can go on forever. Life is in a constant flux and it rejuvenates itself by oscillating back and forth between its own living principles.

Balance happens. We don't have to create it. Instead we have to get with it. There we find all the love, the vibe, the beauty, the confidence, the health, and the freedom we seek. It all becomes available from within that state.

Vision, on the other hand, needs balance as a prerequisite before it can even occur. Vision, I guess one could say, is the sensing of unborn possibilities. The human heart is by nature radical and needs a healthy mind to act like a buffer or interface between itself and the material world. These are some of my basic guidelines for the transition into the new century.

 

BAJ: Nicely put. How did "Honour Simplicity…" happen as a project, and were the songs for the disc written as a group, or are they your compositions? 

Kai: The compositions where written by myself over the last 5 years, and I eventually compiled them for this project. Graham Lawson, Trilok Gurtu's manager, established the contact to the NAIM label. Then I hired two of my all time favorite musicians (Aydin Esen and Sean Rickman) and then arranged the songs for them. I invited them to bring aboard a composition of their own, as a gesture of appreciation. Courtney Pine and Zakir Hussain where included later. There were some hurdles to be taken. NAIM works with Ken Christiansen out of Chicago who is an expert in live-to-two-track recordings on a Nagra. The Nagra is a vintage reel-to-reel used in orchestral recordings during the 70's. No chance for overdubbing or editing, but great live sound. Subsequently I hired the band for a master class at the Akku Cultural Center in Steyr, lead by bassist and visionary Helmut Schoenleitner. Helmut allowed me to integrate rehearsing the album tunes into the curriculum and then allowed me to play two live gigs before an audience. By the time we arrived in London at Pete Townsend's studio, the band was cooking. 

 

BAJ: How did the Garajmahal group come about?

Kai: The founders of Garajmahal are: Alan Hertz (one of the most soulful drummers I have had the privilege to work with!) and Christian Weyers - the band's manager who went to high school with Alan, and who established the contact to Fareed Haque. The band was given its name by Ted Silverman, a fan who responded to an email campaign called "name that band"! One night, on the spur of the moment, I decided to announce from the stage that "the people" should give us a name. We provided an email address and voila... 800 names came in! The name "Garajmahal" was voted #1.

 

 

BAJ: That’s hilarious! What a great way to involve the audience in the actual naming of the band! Very cool!

Talk with us about the fretless you’ve been pictured with lately, the Peter Coura prototype, and your amp rig - as I understand that you have been a long-time endorsing artist of Glockenklang amplification systems. Also, please tell about the other instruments you're using at this time. 

Kai: The Coura Bass started as a 30 year old piece of wood standing around at Peter's workshop in Frankfurt Germany. One day Eberhard Weber walked in and wanted Peter to build him an upright bass from that very piece of wood. But Eberhard never pursued his idea, and so a fretless was built - which ended up in the hands of Herbert Bartetzko, one of the two founding fathers of Glockenklang. One day Herbert saw me walking down the isles at the Frankfurt Music Messe and called me into his Glockenklang booth. The rest is history.

I fell in love with Glockenklang and never played anything else after that. Herbert gave me his fretless to practice on and one day simply gave it to me as a gift. Just like that. The Coura is a gift from God.

My other instruments are: A Modulus with a wooden neck and Graphite component built by Steve Card, a Music Man Cutlass '86, a Slapper 5 piccolo from Clover Guitars Germany, and a 6 string fretless acoustic from Siggi Jaeger who is founder of the company Human Base.

My rig is a Glockenklang Bass Art with two 15" bass art cabinets.

 

 

BAJ: What discs are you listening to, this past week?

Kai: There is only one that blows me away currently! It is by Karim Ziad from North Africa, called "Ifrikya". It sounds like North African Weather Report. The grooves on that album are the heaviest thing I've heard in years, and the arrangements are superb. Karim used to play drums with Zawinul.

The bassist on this album is Michel Alibo from Martinique who is also known for his work on Salif Keita's "Soro" and for playing bass in "Sixun" - the Paris based fusion band which featured Zawinul drummer, Paco Seri.

 

BAJ: Really?!? As many of you know, I am a HUGE Michel Alibo fan, and I site him as an influence on my website! Sixun, is my all-time favorite band! (Note: Gotta get this one…) 

Could you describe the thumb-style method you have employed to such devastating use as in your solo composition "Brenda", and also the tune "Reunion" on Count’s Jam Band’s disc of the same name? 

Kai: The entire style is based on 3 sounds: A thumb stroke, a snap of the string or "pop", and a "hammer on."

The style developed quite organically… until one day I decided to analyze what I was actually doing! At that point, Trilok Gurtu's Indian approach to rhythm came in handy, as I tried to write out rudiments, which later forced me to stretch my abilities. Based on a 16th note grid I came up with called, "mother patterns" from 1 to 9, I broke them down into triads and started shedding. The result is a style that is still in its basics with huge potential. All time signatures, all keys, all harmonies… and very easy on the hands! In the next few years I hope to release an entire album featuring this original technique. I have almost mastered the binary approach and will visit the triplets next. There is another piece out there that’s not yet released. It will appear on the new "Richard S. and the Vibe Tribe" album from Germany, and features Dave Weckl doubling all my patterns. Unfortunately, I have no idea when the release will be.

 

 

BAJ: (Note: We’ll have to keep a sharp lookout for that one!)

How is your one-man theater piece progressing, and are you performing it in the United States yet?

Kai: It is going really well. My voice has always been the weak link since I began singing only 2 years ago. But thanks to Garajmahal I am getting a lot of practice and beginning to feel more solid with the vocal chords. In September I will be performing this piece in Austria at a cultural festival, again in Steyr. Helmut will provide a backing band and I will integrate visuals and a professional actor. Things are evolving nicely. The piece is a mixture of political satire, environmentalism and… a fairytale.

 

 

BAJ: Do you prepare for your one-man shows and musical performance shows in the same way? Or, are there different sets of preparation exercises you walk through for each?

Kai: They are entirely different and therefore need separate preparation. Since I have a lot on my shoulders these days, I usually wait until the occasion is around the corner before I prepare. Taking the metronome into the car helps with the singing. Being stuck in traffic is a great time to practice!

Now that I have two kids, there is not much time to practice available! The best time to work on the bass is during small tours. A little battery powered Pignose amp goes everywhere, and this is how I get most of my practicing done.

 

 

BAJ: Now that you’re settled in the Bay Area, you’ve been building a steady teaching schedule. Please tell our readers how they can contact you, and where you’re teaching. 

Kai: I teach out of my studio in West Oakland whenever I am in town.

I charge $50.00 for the hour. I am also willing to teach for the same rate while on tour. So if time permits and I am playing a gig near you, we can hook up and get some work done.

 

 

BAJ: When we last spoke, you were working on an instructional book! Is that still happening, and how can I get a copy?

Kai: The first chapter was completed a few months ago. Then I discovered a better version and began to re-write. Garajmahal also become very popular and I had to put the book on hold. During my next trip to Europe I will have time to work on the next chapter. It will be at least a year before it is done. I am hoping to win Zakir Hussain's participation when it comes to a demo of my original approach. He is an absolute master of rhythm and will pick up on my lines very quickly… as you can hear on my album!

 

BAJ: You have long held the opinion that educated musicians are "more complete" than those who cannot read and/or write the Language. Obviously, I agree with that statement. However, what should players study regularly, and which resources should they take advantage of most regularly?

Kai: That is difficult to say.... We are not all the same.

Some of us prefer a fixed structure and some of us like an open approach. The amount of material available for study is overwhelming. In my opinion, one should do one’s own research. Always begin with something you love and then stick to it until you see results.

I began by transcribing R&B and funk bass lines from the 70's note by note, even before going to Berklee. That helped in many ways: Developing the ears, and getting a feel for the particular style. Most important is a serious focus and a radical dedication. In other words, true love for the music.

Also, don't be afraid to record and critique yourself. Stay away from jamming with CD's, as you might develop a bad habit of stepping over the music in ways you would not, if playing live. If you like to play with CD's, play an exact part or loop a section for you to solo over. Practice even if you don't feel like it. If you are depressed or down in any way, give the music a chance to lift you up.

 

 

            BAJ: How thoroughly will you tour behind your premier disc, 
          and with Garaj, this year?

Kai: Oh my god… my schedule is a mess! I already had to cancel my fall tour with Aydin and Sean, because of the overwhelming Garajmahal schedule! Everything takes a lot of preparation… and not all has to do with music. I decided to concentrate on Garajmahal for now and postpone the Kai project until next year. Touring without support is also a big financial risk – which, I am not able to take at the moment because my family's financial needs. I am also very much in love with my family, and that makes touring more difficult. But we have to make sacrifices. That's life…

 

 

BAJ: I know what you mean! There’s nothing more painful than being away from my wife and children – while touring. It’s nuts! But… that’s what we do…

How do you approach the concept of soloing? 

Kai: Soloing is part cognitive and part intuitive. The most important thing for a musician to understand, is the function of the rational mind. There are three stages. During the first stage you have to acquire tools. Arpeggios, scales and approach patterns for instance. Work on the fingerings, practice a line - always in all 12 keys - and get solid on the new material at different tempi.

Stage two comes into play when you are able to recall the new material instantly. Then you should focus on a good sound and articulation. Master different dynamics.

During the third stage… you have to forget everything, and just play! The third stage is all about filling the notes with emotion.

Look at it this way… We prepare the new material until we master it. Then we hold it up over our head on a big tray and let the higher self take over and pick and choose in the spur of the moment. This giving up control, and trusting in higher power is most essential when it comes to true improvisation. African trance music is a great example of this.

 

BAJ: Your intonation on the fretless bass guitar is incredibly precise! What are some of the things you’ve practiced to achieve this? 

Kai: At one point I understood the fretless as being the extension of the soul's voice. I stopped worrying about intonation and things got better in a natural way. "Intonate with the heart… and not with the mind", is my recommendation.

On a practical level: Play a lot without looking at your fingerboard. A great tool for intonation is the drone. If you have a keyboard or a sequencer, produce a steady tone against which you play your exercises. Do it real slow, and allow yourself to hear the micro-tones surrounding intonation. Don't be afraid of bad intonation. When it happens, accept it and move on to a better performance. Nobody is perfect all the time.

 

 

BAJ: Do you find that you’re being called for sessions because you’re, "Kai Eckhardt… and you have a unique approach to…" more often than because you’re a great bassist, these days? Is there a difference to you? 

Kai: Whatever a person’s motivation for calling me might be is secondary to the fact that I have work and receive money for playing music. That is a great thing in itself. Most of my fellow humans have to do things that are a lot less creative. Music feeds my children and puts a roof over my head. Therefore I am not that picky. I like to work a lot, so not everything I do has high artistic integrity.

Of course, it would be nice if all the calls I get turn out to be fantastic musical experiences! But, life is not that way. I have played some horrifying gigs and recorded a fair amount of lame music. I have also been approached by people who wanted to have my name on an album because they are huge McLaughlin fans… and felt that some "John" would rub off on them, as a result of hiring me.

I'll be perfectly honest… If I were single and had nothing to do but sit at home and play bass, I would pick and choose a lot more. In reality, I live in an expensive part of the US and currently single-handedly provide for my wife and our two small children. I am happy for any work the Universe sends my way as long as there is room in my schedule. At the end of the day, my kids will have a decent life and a solid education. They won't be raised by the nanny, because mom is there for them and she's not forced to work. Dad travels a lot as it is, and that is enough

instability for those little ones. When I find myself in a bad musical situation, I try to be a Pro, as much as possible. This means doing the best possible to bring the music to a decent level while respecting the people around me. That is good craftsmanship and generally an honorable situation. If you have love for people and the world, everything else eventually falls into place!

 

            BAJ: How would you mentor an up-and-coming bassist 
          with an interest in playing sessions?

Kai: Ground yourself in your own practice regimen. Before you walk into the studio, you should already be connected to the music within. Warm up by yourself before playing a session. Don't obsess… be relaxed.

Take your time to assimilate the material. Loop the sections you are not comfortable with, and get enough sleep and a good breakfast before you go in. Bring your business card and leave it with the producer/artist/engineer. Get your sound together. Avoid a lot of efx. Tell the engineer what you need and let him use his/her equipment.

Listen to a broad range of styles. After your performance, listen closely to your track, and take notes of all the locations in time where you need to punch. Avoid punching over and over. Go for larger sections. That is more musical. Dissecting the music is painful to the spirit, and we all need to be aware of that.

Pro tools are great, but it can also do a lot of damage - in the Frankenstein sense of the word! Let us not forget that music is the voice of God/Goddess and that it is here to relieve us from the burden of everyday life. It is only secondarily a product to be bought or sold. In general, sessions are only a small part of the picture. Computer editing, sampling, and electronic bass have replaced a lot of live tracking. Things are more product-oriented these days, and I personally believe there is more future in songwriting and band practice as well as live performing. We have to stay on top of the machine and not forget our roots.

 

 

            BAJ: Yeah! This is enough information to constitute a year-long 
          study! Thanks again, Kai!
  At the end of the day… What matters most to you? 

Kai: Health: Mental, spiritual and physical. Music can be a great healer. However, there are many traps around fashion, commerce, and peer pressure. Those are all distractions. Play music that warms your heart. Always be respectful, and stay humble… Music is its own reward.

 

            BAJ: What are your other passions, besides bass playing?

Kai: My wife and kids, windsurfing, Reiki (Japanese body work) and good conversation.

 

Thanks a lot for the update, Kai! As usual, I’ve had an incredible time talking with you!

 

Brent-Anthony Johnson is a bassist/author/instructor/clinician in the Denver Metropolitan Area. Fodera, Status Graphite/HotWires Strings, PRO TEC, Wayne Jones Amplification, and LINE 6 currently endorse him. The Premier disc of his group, Sonal Anu, is being recorded at this writing! Reach BAJ through his website at: www.myspace.com/brentanthonyjohnson
 

 

 

                                  

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