Saturday, June 5, 2010

Kenny Kirkland

Kenny Kirkland (piano; b. 1955 - d. 1998)

Unfortunately known mostly as a session man (mainly with Wynton Marsalis and then Branford Marsalis' bands), Kenny Krikland was one of the most sought after pianist of the 80s and 90s. Highly regarded for adding a big dynamic to the aforementioned groups, Kirkland was influence by fellow piansts, Herbie Hancock, Kenny Barron and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Kirkland got his start in the mid-seventies playing with jazz violinist, Michael Urbaniak and then later with ex Weather Report bassist, Miroslav Vitous.

Kenny Kirkland began playing with Wynton from '81-'85 providing providing many exquisite moments to Wynton's earliest recording (including Wynton's self titled debut and the classic Black Codes). Kirkland left Wynton's band to join former Police lead singer, Sting on touring and for the recording of Sting's first solo record, The Dream of Blue Turtles. The band also included Wynton's older brother Branford. While his association with Sting was brief it obviously raised his profile immensely. Kirkland and Branford both left the band shortly after a massive world tour in support of the release.

Returning back to the jazz scene, Kirkland would join Branford Marsalis permanently from '86 onward. The miraculous and unbelievable thing is Kirkland after all these years had never recorded an album as leader. It wasn't until 1991 that Kirkland would release, Kenny Kirkland (GRP Records). While long in coming it was a fantastic and beautiful album featuring mixture of self penned numbers and covers (Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman and Wayne Shorter). The album starts with the formidable "Mr. J.C." with some great work from Branford (sax), Charnett Moffett (bass) and Jeff "Tain" Watts (drums). The albums was a supergroup of nineties jazz talent; in addition to the aforementioned, Christian McBride (drums), Jerry Gonzalez (percussion), Steve Berrios (drums), Andy Gonzalez (bass), Don Alias (percussion), Roderick Ward (sax) and Robert Hurst (bass) all featured on selected tracks.

Another track "Chance", a trio piece with McBride and "Tain" displays the tonal beauty of Kirkland on the piano. Kirkland also tackles the Monk standard, "Criss Cross" with some interesting Latin arrangements that works surprisingly well if at first seems a little jarring. The album does cover a lot of ground, mixing different themes (bop, straight ahead contemporary and Latin) but it does show the breathe and depth of Kirkland's thinking.

This wonderful debut would be Kirkland's only album. He would continue to do session work and playing in Branford Marsalis' band throughout the nineties. In the winter of 1996 Kirkland was found dead in his apartment in New York. It was a devastating blow for the jazz community. Branford would later record and dedicate the album Requiem in Kirkland's honor. Kenny Kirkland was an amazing young talent who was only beginning to come into the peak of his power but his self-titled debut is well worth seeking out as a document of what he provided jazz history.

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