This past weekend, while clearing out one of the bedrooms in my house to make way for a nursery (yes folks, there’s a little Gruss set to drop in December), I stumbled upon an old shoebox containing dozens of old cassette tapes from my years at Berklee. A literal time capsule back to 1996-2000, these tapes captured everything from late night jam sessions in 150 Mass Ave, board tapes from various gigs with Jonah Smith, instrumental funk tracks featuring a classmate named John, and most importantly, recordings of my drum lessons with the legendary, Kenwood Dennard.
When I was in high school, Kenwood’s drumming on Maceo Parker’s “Life on Planet Groove” was without doubt, the most influential of all of the CDs I owned. I must have listened to that album thousands of times, learning every funky ghost note and fill that Kenwood laid down on that record. My love for that CD practically bordered on obsession, which is probably why I was so estatic when I found out that Kenwood would be joining the Berklee faculty during my freshman year of college. It’s not often that someone gets to meet one of their biggest musical heros, let alone be mentored by them.
During my junior year, I performed in Kenwood’s “Music of James Brown” ensemble as well as studied privately with him. This was a great combination because he would have the chance to hear me play every week in a live setting with other musicians, and then we would break it all down in my lessons and tweak certain elements of my drumming.
Kenwood always had two drum kits set up in his office, so the majority of lessons were spent with the two of us playing together, refining various grooves and bouncing rhythmic phrases back and forth. Not wanting to forget a single note of our sessions, I always had a tape recorder running so I could analyze everything afterwards. It was humbling enough just playing with Kenwood, it was even MORE humbling listening to a recording of yourself playing with Kenwood.
At the beginning of one particular lesson in 1998, I was showing Kenwood some grooves in 7/8 I was working on. Nothing fancy, just some vanilla funk groove with a lot of emphasis on the “1”. What Kenwood laid on me next was something that would forever change my playing:
You can totally reconstruct the entire DNA of a groove by NOT emphasising the “1”. And when doing this in an odd meter, things can get really interesting. Find the weak part of beats and try turning them into the dominate ones. And this doesn’t only apply to odd meters… it can be just as effective in 4/4.
A few of my favorite moments of this lesson:
– 1:30 Kenwood and I trying to find the “e” of 4
– 6:59 Kenwood asking ME how to play the groove to Super Bad
– 9:35 “You can do that for the next 10 years.” He was right.
Here’s a quick transcription I did of the concept we were working on in that lesson (pardon the unattached 8th note stems). Notice, there is nothing on the downbeat of 1 (other than the hi hat), with the kick drum anticipating each bar by falling on the “e” of 4. Any snare note that isn’t a back beat is to be ghosted.