On a beautiful Saturday evening in June, I sat down for coffee and a chat with the award-winning Danish bassist, composer, and friend, Kenneth Dahl Knudsen. A busy player on the European jazz scene, Knudsen had just finished playing with a Danish/Latvian group, featuring world-class pianist Aaron Parks and Berklee alum Christian Frank; Knudsen’s busy schedule soon took him to Paris, France, where he celebrated his birthday after a gig on June 26. This is what Kenneth had to say:
Tell me about yourself.
I’m a bass player, composer, and I’m Danish. I currently live in Berlin, Germany, with my girlfriend and I grew up in a small town called Arden, which is in the northern part of Jutland in Denmark. After I finished at the Rhythmic Conservatory in Denmark I decided to move to Berlin, and I am a lucky person who gets to travel and be a part of the burning jazz scene there.
What kind of music did you grow up with? Did you come from a musical family?
My mother actually played classical piano, but not professionally. I was into dance and pop music as a teenager. I played drums and saxophone, and then I eventually picked up the electric bass and played rock and funk like everyone else. It grew on me; I loved the bass and started digging into more music. The more my ear developed, the more sophisticated the music got. Later on, I started playing in more of a jazz context.
You said you were digging into more music. What were some of the artists that you liked?
I really liked Tower of Power and Stevie Wonder.
What kind of jazz records did you listen to when you started getting into jazz?
It was a transition period where I listened to more funky stuff like The Headhunters and Weather Report; I love Jaco Pastorius, as all other bass players do. Then I started listening to more of the ’60s jazz with the Miles Davis and John Coltrane groups. I try to listen to a lot of music all the time that I like and combine it into a sound.
I am glad you didn’t just listen to jazz, because you become too close-minded a musician if you just stick to one style.
I think that’s one of the great things with growing up with pop music — that you don’t get to be a jazz aficionado that way. I like it but just music in general.
Your musical journey along the way has gone from attending a musical foundation course (MGK as we call it in Denmark) to attending the Rhythmic Conservatory and then moving to Berlin after graduation
At first I just liked playing the bass. MGK was a pat on the shoulder, a blue stamp [as] you may call it. If you get in, you are a good bass player. I was super focused up [until] studying there and it built my confidence. During those years I practiced a lot to get into the conservatory; I switched [to upright bass] during this period because I got more interested in jazz.
Who were some of your teachers along the way?
In Denmark I had a guy called Torben Bjørnskov. When traveling I always try to do lessons; I have taken lessons from Jay Anderson and Greg Cohen, who I studied with for a year in Berlin. Once I took a lesson from Christian McBride when he was in Copenhagen with the Pat Metheny Group; Marco Mendoza is another guy I studied with.
How did you get lessons with these world class players?
When you are not fully developed it’s just important being around them and listen[ing] to what they have to say. In the end, you know what you have to do: transcribe, work on your time … it’s endless and all this can be done through YouTube. Learn from their experience.
After your studies you moved to Berlin. Why Berlin and not New York, for instance?
I needed a really good jazz scene. I was in Denmark and played a lot of gigs, but at one point I made it to a maximum and repeatedly played with the same people and venues. I built confidence and wanted to do more. I had a fire to build up my career and yes, I could have moved to New York, but I liked Berlin because it’s close to home, it’s cheap, and the scene is amazing.
What are some of the jazz clubs you go to in Berlin?
A-Trane, B Flat, and Waldo Bar. It [Berlin] is a great place to be because there are about 50 gigs every night around the city.
I can imagine it’s easier to move to Berlin because then you don’t have to deal with getting a visa, green card and so on?
It was a 7-hour drive with all my stuff and then I was there.
When you are not playing music, what do you like to do?
I play soccer [Kenneth responds quickly] and then I play a lot of FIFA with friends. I like to hang with people and that’s one of the beauties of being a jazz musician: there’s so much hanging after the gigs; that’s also the reason I think I can live this life. I play about 200 gigs a year and it’s tough if you don’t like other people.
How did your parents feel about you pursuing a musical career?
They were extremely supportive and more and more [supportive] with time. They want me to be successful and have an easy life; I think the more they see that I am successful and traveling and recording, the happier they are.
Your most recent recording, Clockstopper, features world class musicians such as Jaleel Shaw (Berklee ’00), Jonathan Blake, and Gilad Hekselman. What made you decide on these guys?
I met Gilad [who played on Knudsen's first record, Strings Attached] in New York. My piano player, Søren Møller, was studying with Jaleel and Jonathan. I have always seen Søren as a kind of mentor for me; I took a lot of [his] advice and learned from him. At one point, I asked him who he would recommend for the album. I needed top players and my label supported it so [we] went to New York and recorded. I really liked playing with them.
Will you be working with them anytime soon?
I don’t think so. I did some gigs in Denmark with Gilad, but now I want to focus on my own projects in Berlin. It was fun playing with superstars, but I also feel like it’s important playing with friends and making something unique that sounds like you; it’s good to have a working band. Right now, I am leading two groups: I have a quintet and a 16-piece ensemble, where my focus is on on my composing. It consists of voice, flute, horns, strings and a rhythm section. I try to work on it all the time, but I like deadlines; I like to focus on something for a week. Maybe I will write about three compositions and then that’s done and I can move on, otherwise it’s too much in my head.
Is it a contemporary classical ensemble?
I try not to make any rules. It shouldn’t sound like anything. That also makes it easier writing the lines and having no voicing rules. I like the way that Maria Schneider writes for her orchestra. I also like what’s happening on the American scene with Christian Scott adding a more rock-ish sound and beats. I think Kurt Rosenwinkel was one of the first do this.
Tonight you are playing with the Frank/Pashkevich project with Aaron Parks and Lisbeth Diers. How did this come along?
We play Christian Frank [guitar] and Deniss Pashkevich’s [saxophone] tunes. Christian called me for a gig in Riga, Latvia, and I didn’t know him; I guess he had seen some of my work online. So I went to Riga and played three or four gigs and didn’t hear from him for a while and then he called me for this gig and asked me if I wanted to record with the group and Aaron Parks, which is a great opportunity. The music is great, but [it's] hard to tell what it is because its not swing, so I would call it more modern. The two of them (Frank and Pashkevich) are very different.
What about Aaron Parks?
His music is harmonically and melodically interesting. I listened a lot to his Invisible Cinema album; he was a prodigy and now plays with everyone. His mind is full of music and he’s a joy to be around.
How were you with practicing?
I used to practice a lot and I still do, but [I] try to set goals for myself; again, setting [a] deadline is important to mak[e] me stay focused. Let’s say I want to play in 13/8 and then I play a lot of gigs and say to the guys on this gig that we have to play this song I wrote in 13/8 and they say ok. There’s no going back, it has to be done on the gig; otherwise I’ll never find out for myself. It’s super motivating. When I’m not motivated I still use a Tabata timer. This I use for most of my practice, especially when practicing Bach etudes, which is really nice, but sometimes boring. For example, I will do four rounds of minutes with a break in between; it’s much easier for me this way since I then know how long I will spend. If I do it structured, for instance just 20 minutes of that exercise using the clock makes me do it.
How do you go along with learning tunes/music? Would you learn standards in all 12 keys?
When I first moved to Berlin, I wanted to learn the tunes they play to be part of the scene; my first two weeks there I brought my little notebook and wrote down what they played and learned them. I d[idn't] learn them in 12 keys, but three keys, because that’s enough for me. If you can play in three keys, you can play in 12 keys because I can sing the root notes; this might not be the same for all players. Horn and piano players might need to know more keys. It doesn’t hurt practicing in 12 keys, but it’s a long process, and I want to spend time on other stuff. Learning standards is an endless process ’cause there are so many. Maybe it’s an American thing, learning them [tunes] in 12 keys, but I only really play standards at jam sessions. Most times we meet up [with] a group of friends and learn each others music and we read, listen, and transcribe from original music. It’s very inspiring to plays each others’ music for your own compositional work and ideas.
What are some of the hip tunes in Berlin at the jam sessions?
We play “Beatrice” a lot and “Moment’s Notice,” “Alone Together,” “Inner Urge,” and a lot of different blues heads.
Some young musicians come into the scene and don’t know a lot of tunes and lose the form. What is some advice you can give them?
It should happen and it happened when I was younger, but made me so much better the day after; its super-annoying standing there losing the form. I did a gig with the Gilad Hekselman trio and I lost the form and it was horrible. [It was the] worst night of my musical career, but since then I never mess up the form; it was terrible, but I of course learned that I never want to be in that situation again: standing on the stage with superstars and losing the form. My advice is just to go to the jam sessions, have fun, and don’t think too much about it. I don’t think badly about people at jams who don’t play well; I’m just there to hang and have fun. It’s tough when you have to go after ratings at a school, and I’m not sure that’s healthy because, first of all, music should be fun and giving; it’s tough for the ego. My advice is to always have fun and try new stuff at jam sessions and do stuff you don’t know. The jam sessions aren’t going to land you any gigs. Focus on messing up and learning from it; be a good person and give all you have…that will take you far.
I need a good hang. With so many great musicians to pick from all over the world, I would never pick someone with a bad attitude. I’ll just pick the next in line if the guy before is not good to be around. When I pick musicians for my projects, I go for the ones who will play my compositions and be themselves; it’s important to be on time. I don’t want to play with people who don’t respect you.
What are some of your musical highlights along the way? Did I hear you played with John Scofield (’73)?
Yeah, I did a clinic in Denmark with him and he needed a backing group. We played four or five standards and this was a great experience. I also did something called Summer Session where I played with Joe Lovano (Berklee ’72). They bring in master musicians to teach. The Fringe (a group that plays every Monday at the Lilypad in Cambridge, MA featuring Berklee teachers George Garzone on saxophone, John Lockwood on bass, and Bob Gullotti on drums) was also there. During this session, I was in drummer Tyshawn Sorey’s combo, which was an eight to nine piece group. He is another genius and he writes very difficult stuff; he brought in one of his tunes, which was 25 pages long. Getting to be a part of this session you have to submit music that a jury will go through. It’s really good to hang with musicians further ahead in their musical career because they can give you advice so you don’t mess up. I was lucky to do a gig with saxophonist Dick Oatts, and we drove in my car and those hours driving from gig to gig; you learn so much. That should be a part of practice: learning and playing from masters.
I was talking to bassist Marco Panascia, who told me he got to [play] some gigs with saxophone master Lee Konitz, and he never decided on the music they would play; Konitz would just start playing and improvising on a standard but wouldn’t say which one, the key, or the form. He [Konitz] told him [Panascia] to pay attention the harmonic movement.
This leads me to asking you about your thoughts on free music?
It’s interesting, but [it] has to have a meaning and direction. I’m not just into making sounds on the instrument, but making music. It’s interesting that there’s a lot of great free music out there. I like play free with direction; if you don’t know what’s going on it’s difficult to listen to.
Plans for the future?
“I have a tour coming up in Japan with a guitar player and two Japanese musicians. I am also playing in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and teaching in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Montevideo, Uruguay. Some of this is happening with Berklee students from one of their Berklee International Network schools. In March, I was in Ecuador with a bunch of these guys and we played at the Quito Jazz Festival. The guitarist [Ramiro Olaciregui) used to teach at this school and now he lives in Berlin like me...I also have two CDs that should be done by the end of the year: one with the 16-piece ensemble and one with my quintet. In August, I will be recording with the group I am playing with tonight and it’s going be great to do a recording, wh[ich] Aaron Parks will be on. We will see what happens. I have a lot of practicing to do; again, it’s endless [laughs].”
Videos of Kenneth’s Music:
One of Kenneth’s original groups
16-piece ensemble from Berlin
Cover of The Beatles’ classic “Come Together”
Duo with trumpeter Jakob Sørensen