Kenny Brooks: Ratdog’s Webnerd with Sax
Kenny Brooks keeps himself busy on the road. In addition to his role as Ratdog’s saxophone player he also serves as the band’s webmaster (hence the title of this piece- if you scroll down through www.rat-dog.com, check out his email address which is referenced above). If you had asked him a few years back, both of these gigs would have seemed quite unlikely to the Berklee-trained musician whose principal focus was more angular jazz. In the following interview he discusses his career development and details his experiences with Ratdog. For additional facts, transcriptions and more, visit www.kennybrooks.com.
DB- Let’s jump all the way back and pick things up after college. You graduated from Berklee School of Music in 1988 and then returned to California?
KB- I graduated in 88 and came back to California the next year. Those of us at Berklee were all supposed to New York so that’s what 99% of my friends did. I was the one cat who came back but I got lucky and hooked up with the drummer Eddie Marshall. All of a sudden I was working a lot and so I didn’t have to face that question about coming back to the west coast. Also around 91 we stared this group called Alphabet Soup, a hip-hop jazz thing, which also included Jay Lane, the drummer from Ratdog.
DB- Over the years a number of people in the Bay Area have mentioned Alphabet Soup to me. From what I understand it was a real interesting band but all of you also have other gigs as well.
KB- That’s the thing. especially the past few years we’ve all been busy with so many projects. If you ask any of those cats though it’s some of the most amazing music we’ve ever made. It was one of these bands that was almost too good to be popular- too much music for mass consumption. We made a couple of records in the 90;’s but we only pressed two thousand and there’s probably no copies of them out there anywhere. We still intend to keep it alive though.
Alphabet Soup had some very specific ideas we built the band on and one of them was never to rehearse. We never rehearsed, ever. We wrote tons of music and we’d bring the sheets in and read through them once or twice and do some rehearsing on the stand but that was it. The other thing was we never did a soundcheck. If you have a bad soundman it can be two hours and you’ll never get it right and if you have a good one usually he can dial it up on the fly in five minutes at the beginning of the gig.
DB- Given your current profile and that of Jay Lane, it might be interesting to put together a string dates when everyone can clear their itineraries.
KB- In the back of our minds, we’re thinking that there might be a right time for this. When we first started there was a wave and we actually turned down some major labels because they made some ridiculous offers- they wanted to take all our publishing. We second guess ourselves about this a lot but we probably would not have lasted as long as we have in that kind of situation where they chew you up and spit you out. Still, when we look around these days we think we should not let this go.
DB- I’d like to talk a bit about your development as a musician. I notice that on your site you single out Joe Henderson as a major influence. You studied with him, right?
KB- When I came back from Boston, probably about 1990, I took a few lessons at his house in San Francisco. It was a humbling experience. It was so funny because he’d joke that you’ll be teaching him before the day is out and it just so ridiculous some of things he’ll play. You don’t make any impression on him. He is in his own world. It was good for me because I felt I was so insignificant to this master. I went home and redoubled my practice efforts and I was already maniacal about practicing.
DB- How would you describe his legacy?
KB- Joe Henderson, I don’t even know what to do say. When you listen to Coltrane it’s the same thing. He’s something so original, he has such a unique voice and is so advanced in all the areas, all aspects of improvising music . His rhythmic concept is so advanced it took me years and years of listening to him because I could even approach writing down some of the rhythms that he played. He’s just so fresh.
I did a record with him once actually for this singer, Katie Margolies. I was going to play the parts and he was going to play the solos. We were in the studio and I was standing next to him and on every tune he would stop before we actually starting recording and he’d go over the piano and just play through the chords. He would go through the changes on the piano and then come back and every single note he played the entire day was perfect. I was stunned. He probably played 20 solos that day and every note was perfect it blew my mind. One of those things, where watching him work was real inspiring. The album’s called Katie Margolies, Evolution. You get that record just for the Joe solos.
DB- Do you have a favorite Jon Henderson disc?
KB-There’s so many great ones. The State of the Tenor came out in the 80’s while I was going to school and I listened to it constantly. Live at the Vanguard is amazing. There are just so many.
DB- Our readers who don’t know you from Alphabet Soup may very well have first encountered you through your work with Charlie Hunter. How did that association come about?
KB- We grew up together in Berkeley. We played in bands together in high school. I was in a band with cats like David Ellis who I ended up replacing in both Charlie’s band and Ratdog. I can’t wait to see what gig he gets next (laughs). We had this band and Charlie had this rockabilly trio, Greasy Monkey, sort of molded on the Stray Cats.
Then I went to college and Charlie didn’t go to school. Instead, he just went to Europe and played on the street for a few years. We both kind of came back to the Bay Area at the same time and started doing this duo gig at the Up and Down club every Friday night for a whole year. Finally we added Scott Amendola the drummer and did this trio thing every night for couple more years. Then Charlie went uptown and did a trio with Jay and Dave Ellis and they did that for a while. I rejoined him in the quartet around 96-97.
DB- Let’s talk about Ratdog. How did you land that gig?
KB- After Dave left Ratdog in December of 99 I received a call from Jay and he said, “I want you to come down and play.” They wanted me to play New Year’s Eve. Then after they booked me to play they called me and said, “It’s too early, we still want to try to work it out with Dave so we’ll pay you not to play.” The next month they had me record on Evening Moods. Jeff Chimenti invited his friend Eric Crystal, who is this amazing saxophonist, and he and I were both auditioning via this recording. I didn’t hear anything from Ratdog for five months after that because they didn’t have any gigs. Then they had some dates in May and I received a call- “We have some dates and we want you and Eric to split them to see what happens.” Eric had some gigs that he wasn’t willing to give up, so I did all the dates and by the end of the month I had the gig.
DB- How familiar were you with the music of the Grateful Dead prior to then?
KB- Not only had I never seen a Dead show but I had never listened to them. It was the kind of thing where I had no idea, and coming from this hardcore jazz background I really hadn’t listened to rock, period. It was challenging for me to play because I didn’t know what I was doing. The great thing is that Bob wasn’t looking for cats who were in awe of him or blown away because they had been following the Dead on tour. He wanted cats who were out of the loop which is why Jay and Jeff worked out so well.
For me I never could have imagined it. Ten years ago if you said that this is what I would be doing I couldn’t even have fathomed it. Fortunately it’s been the most amazing thing for my playing. The tunes are so strong which is something you don’t realize if you haven’t checked it out. We’re on the bus with all these Dick Picks and I’m transcribing Jerry’s solos. That’s the thing about the way we approach music-it’s so complete. The way you come up as a jazz player is there’s all this hunger for knowledge, trying to find out what every sound is. I know more than a hundred Dead tunes now and I never could have imagined knowing a hundred tunes period.
DB- You mentioned transcribing solos. When Ratdog performs a Dead tune what is your attitude and approach towards taking a traditional Jerry lead?
KB- I’m never trying to play what Jerry played except every once in a while Mark [Karan] and I might have something worked out on a Jerry line. I’m not trying to quote him that much. Instead, what I’m trying to do is discover the vibe behind his playing and what was he thinking when he was doing this. I’ve really been checking it out closely and talking about it on the bus. We’re such individual musicians that we’ll always think of new ways to play it but keep it in the spirit of the whole thing. I know Bob likes the fact that we don’t play them the way the Dead played them. We’re inspired by it but our personalities as musicians are pretty set already.
DB- Bobby tends to wear his game face on stage but you’re the one guy in the band who will consistently make him break down and smile.
KB- I love it when that happens, it’s great. He’s kind of understated in a way. On stage you have to be aware because his cues are very subtle but I have learned so much from doing these gigs with him. He has these little nuggets of wisdom that he’ll drop on you at any moment. It’s the kind of shit you couldn’t plan for in your career but it seem like the best thing that could have happened.
DB- Can you give an example of a subtle cue you mentioned?
KB- He might cue something at the last minute and if you don’t have your eyes over his way it’s easy to miss it. On the last half-beat, where you might think it’s too late, he’s not going to go there then he’ll do a little hop or jump up on one foot. Not a big, “Here we go fellows,” just a little hopping on one foot but we’re going to a different place.
DB- Did it take you a while before you picking up on all those cues?
KB- Oh yeah. I’m still figuring it out. The way it works between Mark Karan and myself is there’s a point in a tune where either one of us could take a solo and a lot of times we just look over at each other and no one will go. Then it’s like “Damn,” and after five seconds we’ll both start going, and it’s “Oh, Damn.”
DB- Obviously you could work out those arrangements in advance so clearly that’s part of the band ethos?
KB- We do talk about it a bit ahead of time but the magic that happens on the gigs is when you get the whole unexpected, uncharted thing. When you see a band that is rehearsed-up and tight, it might be flashy and exciting but it can be lacking. The whole thing about the Grateful Dead was this whole collective improvisation thing which is very close to jazz. You’re putting yourself on the spot and you’re going to suck at times. We actually look forward to sucking, having a moment where the shit is not happening. That’s the real shit because if you have those then you’re also going to have moments where something happens that’s amazing. That’s what you want to see- chances taken, risks not some canned stuff. This audience is supportive of that kind of playing.
DB- When you started playing with Ratdog did you go back and listen to what Ellis had done?
KB- I did. When I first started doing this I said, “Yeah I got this tape of Ellis,” and they were like, “No, don’t do that. You’ll figure out some good shit to play.” What I do is a different style. He played more over the top of everything and I’m more in the middle of everything, more playing off of what’s going on around me. His style was more in the mold of Coltrane or Miles Davis in the classic sense that you step up and take your solo and then step back. With Ratdog it’s not always like that. I might only step up and take a solo once in a whole gig but aside from that I’m playing the whole time.
DB- Now that you’ve been a it for nearly a year and a half do you think your own playing has changed?
KB- I know it has a lot. When you try to assess your own playing it’s impossible because you’re way too close to it but when I come back and play jazz but I have friends who will say that my playing is a lot different. I think it has a lot to do with being freer and more competent with making simple melodies. When I was first learning to play I went straight to altered chords and complex harmonies from eighth grade on but this music is very different . This music is triads which are connecting, a very different thing When you’re playing simple major triads you want to hear some good-sounding melodies and it’s hard. I’m used to playing the most angular complex lines that I can find. They are definitely moments in the jams where we’re all playing very chromatically and I contribute interesting shapes that are unexpected but when we’re playing blues thing, I’m digging down into blues roots. Bob has turned me on stuff like Bill Monroe the father of bluegrass which has been some really heavy shit for me to check out. I really get something from it. Ive already been hit by studying Jerry solos but this is moving back to the source.
DB- Do you have any favorites among the Dead tunes?
KB- I have a lot of tunes that I really like to play. I really like the huge magnum opus like “Weather Report” or “Terrapin Station.” Those are so big and get so big when we play them. People respond and the energy coming back is incredible.
DB- I enjoy the Dead tunes but I have to tell you that for me its really the newer Ratdog tunes that most excite me. I think you guys play them with additional vigor. Maybe that’s because everyone had a hand in writing them?
KB- Well I think they’re great tunes. I came in after they had written those tunes so I haven’t been a part of writing Ratdog tunes yet. However we’re working at it all the time in that quirky way that Bob likes to do it. We just jam at soundcheck and tape it. Then we go back after tour when we have all these discs of jam sections and pick out some things that could become tunes.
We made a big push to learn all these Dead tunes and a lot of people come out and want to hear that. But for us as creative artists we need to keep writing tunes and over time the balance will swing more to Ratdog tunes.
DB- You just completed the So Many Roads tour. I’d like to hear your thoughts on the experience.
KB- It turned out great for us. Even though the houses weren’t all full we did better than the promoters expected. Frankly, we needed more experience with those big venues and we learned how to rock out more. The whole festival vibe was great, and made especially more so by all the sitting in that went on: Logic and Karl played with us numerous times, I played with Karl, most of us sat in with Logic, Mike D the percussionist with Karl’s band sat in with us almost every night. So that was great.
DB- When Karl sat in with Ratdog did you work those parts out in advance and did he know the music of the band?
KB- We didn’t work out any of the parts in advance but I showed him some stuff after the fact. He didn’t know our music but he started digging it and he has big ears so we were able to make it happen on the spot. There truly were some uncanny moments. Andy Cleaves, Karl’s trumpet player also sat in and the three of us made a mighty section. Those are some bad dudes?
DB- Any other memorable moments?
KB- The scariest moment took place when Bob sat through a glass table and sliced himself up right before the gig in Holmdel. My account of it can be found on-line at the Ratdog web site.
DB- Which reminds me, you’re the webmaster of the band’s official site aren’t you? That’s another hat you wear.
KB- I have very limited skills but I did build the site and I do maintain it. I built my own site at www.kennybrooks.com so I know just enough to keep the shit going. People who don’t realize that probably just think that the band has some really weak web designer (laughs).