“Conviction” is a powerful word, it connotes purposeful, assured and determined. And those are qualities that be ascribed to Kendrick Scott’s second album, Conviction.
This drummer, composer, bandleader and sideman (to The Crusaders and Terence Blanchard, among others) is poised to set forth his second album next week, and it’s clear from his remarks and the music itself that this is his big statement about who he is as a musician. “At any given moment, it’s our knowledge — and unfortunately, sometimes our lack or knowledge — that informs everything we do,” assets Scott. “And in those actions, if we’re wise enough to recognize it, there’s a quiet understanding that whatever we do has a purpose. With that understanding comes a sense of conviction.”
To help carry out Scott’s convictions, he has his band Oracle, which over time has evolved to incorporate John Ellis on tenor sax and bass clarinet, Joe Sanders on bass, Taylor Eigsti on piano and Fender Rhodes and Mike Moreno on guitar. Only fellow Houstonian Moreno has been around long enough to participate on the first Scott/Oracle album The Source (2006). Every one of these are the cream of the current class of jazz musicians making some of the forward thinking and highly thought of modern jazz records of the last few years and nearly all are established leaders in their own right. Those are obviously nice attributes to have in band members, but for Scott, the best thing they have going for them is that they buy into Scott’s musical outlook for this album. They don’t need to say so, it’s evident in the recordings.
The Conviction sessions were energetic sessions, with a live in the studio feel. There are no breaks between the songs, they flow from one right into the next one. Perhaps Scott wanted to emphasize continuum, but it does feel like the album was recorded from beginning to end in a single, splendid take. Scott didn’t set out to make a “drummer” record and he limits his solos, but at the same time, he’s a forceful leader, and the band seems to draw their vitality from his drums. The compositions, whether they are Scott’s or someone else’s are in constant motion traversing from one pattern to another and staying unified. It’s that unity that enables the album to go from a dynamic modern jazz rendering of “Pendulum,” a song by UK electronic music outfit Broadcast, right into the experimental pop of Sufjan Stevens’ “Too Much” sung by the fragile high tenor of Alan Hampton…and it still feels part of the same concept.
It’s Sanders’ bass lines that give away the clues for what is the next song covered: Herbie Hancock’s 1969 under appreciated and ambitious “I Have A Dream.” But whereby David Weiss and Point of Departure turned it into a unsettling piece, Scott’s Oracle made it insular and reflective again like Hancock’s original, leaving Sanders and Moreno the primary task of bringing out the melody’s beauty. Sanders, who reminds me of Reggie Workman, gets space all on his own following “Dream” with the a capella performance on “We Shall By Any Means.”
Some of Scott’s best work on the album is found on “Liberty Or Death,” due to his subtle shadings that give emotional depth to a song where the band builds up gradually to a crescendo and gently fall away. Scott does solo to begin “Cycling Through Reality,” leading into a nice, classic funk-jazz groove. Moreno’s percolating solo is followed by Eigsti’s crisp piano one, not once, but twice. “Conviction” shares the same key as that prior track, but the groove turns into a fluid, formless rhythm until the song finds its legs and erupts, before gently dissipating.
The next two numbers take it down a notch in vigor. “Apollo” flows with a traditional jazz rhythm but an esoteric and alluring, mildly Brazilian fusion melody and performed with graceful cadence. Ellis on tenor sax and Eigsti on piano put in delicately sublime solos. “Serenity” is the second of two vocals by Hampton, a serene folk pop song in essence, but bolstered by Ellis’ bass clarinet.
After some words of wisdom by the late martial arts expert Bruce Lee, “Be Water” transits into a descending chord figure followed by another one led alternately by Ellis’ tenor and Moreno’s guitar, then back to first one with Scott much more forceful, pushing Moreno and Ellis into a sparring match with each other. “Memory of Enchantment” brings the album to a soft landing, an elegantly restrained solo piano performance by Eigsti.
As I look back at what I just wrote I noticed that every song is mentioned, but that’s because every song deserved mention. There are no filler in Conviction, but what makes this truly great is the coherency, depth, and yes, purpose. Just because an album is spiritual doesn’t make it great, but Scott has solved the puzzle on how to apply the power of spirituality into great music that cuts across genres and temperaments. It’s his own Conviction that’s made his second proper album an early peak in this still-young career. A major statement, indeed.