Thursday, March 14, 2024

Kenny Wollesen - LATRALA

For more than four decades, Kenny Wollesen's casually powerful drumming has become an intrinsic component of such robust downtown New York scenes as the Knitting Factory, Tonic, The Stone, Bar 55, and Nublu. He has also served as rhythmic centerpiece for projects with Bill Frisell, as well as Steven Bernstein's wild-style Sexmob, myriad John Zorn configurations, and many other Names You Would Recognize.

On his colorful and often kaleidoscopic new album LATRALA, however, Wollesen showcases his considerable compositional skill, inventive mallet-instrument chops, and career-long experimental tendencies by way of introducing a new quintet. LATRALA (think tra-la-la spelled sideways) is filled out by dynamic drummer Nasheet Waits, dramatic guitarist Tony Scherr, fluid bassist Christopher Thomas, and "surreal synths" builder Michael Coleman. Collectively, they play music rooted in Wollesen's jazz-saturated Santa Cruz youth. 

When a February 2022 gig at Zorn's experimental showcase The Stone was unexpectedly canceled due to Covid protocol, Wollesen seized the lemon juicer and booked the band into Shahzad Ismaili's famed Figure 8 studio in Brooklyn for the following two days. The session was engineered by Lily Wen and produced by Will Shore, a composer who plays vibes alongside Wollesen in utopian art-jazz group U┼żupis. 

"My other solo albums have been either duos or literally solo," says Wollesen. "This was more of a proper session. It actually worked out much better than simply doing the Stone show, because we got this amazing recording out of it." 

Playing together for the first time ever, LATRALA recorded nearly the entire album its first session together in a flurry of extraordinary first takes. "I love that energy, that first-time feeling," says Wollesen. "I'm a big believer in the early stages of creating something. It's really exciting! You don't know where you're going, but you're playing with incredible musicians so it somehow works." 

Some tracks reflect key people and places in Wollesen world. "Sam" was inspired by Kenny's downstairs neighbor, an intriguing Upper West Side character who hasn't crossed the New York City border in 95 years. A track steeped in low-key cool, "Johnny Garr" was the DJ name of Wollesen's charismatic stepfather, Jack Darrough, who went on to work the California rails alongside Jack Kerouac and introduced his son to Elllington, Davis, and Bechet. His jazz teachings eventually led Kenny to New York and his first gig, a 1986 date with bassist Stomu Takeishiat the Greenwich Village jazz mainstay celebrated in the hard-grooving "Fifty-Five." 

While the record reflects Wollesen's enthusiasm for the innovative vibraphone legacies of Bobby Hutcherson and Cal Tjader, it's more personal influence begins with the late "Big Don" McCaslin (1928-2020), the hardest working pianist-vibraphonist-bandleader in Santa Cruz and father of Wollesen's closest high school pal, contemporary saxophone star Donny McCaslin. Wollesen, then focusing on vibes, eventually started playing in the elder McCaslin's Latin-tinged combo, Warmth. Don "was a big vibes influence for sure," Wollesen says. "He was also the ultimate art hippie and a foundational figure in my life." 

LATRALA was built on the solid foundation of Wollesen's tunes and the quintet's collective experience as globe-trotting innovators. After its initial tracks were complete, Wollesen returned to the studio and overdubbed layers upon subtle layers of percussive and electronic detail with Will Shore. The album's nooks and crannies now contain multiple vibraphones, marimbas, bells, congas, and a lot of WollesonicTM percussion – especially the aurally distinctive "Rattlers" he created during his pandemic hiatus. "I went crazy for a while and built about two hundred of these things from different materials," he admits. 

Nonetheless, "the fundamental part of the song was still these raw and wild first takes." And as for it all being a grand one-shot deal, stay tuned. "My Stone residency was rescheduled to 2025," Wollesen concludes with a wry chuckle.

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