Jazz Today: L.A. Keys-Wiz Kait Dunton on Making Jazz Sound Easy
Once a member of Snarky Puppy, Kait Dunton talk with PopMatters about making it from the other coast and learning to go electric.
Real & Imagined Music
11 May 2018Amazon
One of the most enjoyable recordings of 2018 has been trioKAIT 2 by pianist Kait Dunton. It sneaks up on you like an old friend who knows you too well. The band is just keys/bass/drums, and the "genre" at first seems to be a kind of jazz fusion that is drunk on pop music flavors. But every listen makes you realize that the pleasing tracks aren't just lite funk with tasty licks. trioKAIT 2 is a masterclass in varied rhythms and artful textures with melodies and improvisations that are from the heart.
Unable to shake the sound, you might also note that you probably haven't heard of Dunton before, a Los Angeles-based musician in her 30s who hasn't appeared on that many records other than own—though that now amounts to five. Where did she come from? Why was it so easy for a talent this effortless to sneak up on the scene?
A New "West Coast" Jazz
Kait Dunton, originally from Pasadena, California, ended up going home to the west coast after four years at the University of Virginia and then a music degree at North Texas State, the famed jazz school. Never based in New York, Dunton is a different kind of "jazz" musician, if that's even a word she would use.
"L.A. is such a weird, big place," she explains. "There are 88 different cites in the county of Los Angeles. That's how diverse the area is, and it creates a really diverse musical experience. There's so much else happening that jazz is just the base layer, even if it's a passion that holds us together. But we're so involved in other music all the time, especially with the film industry being here. People will ask, 'Can you record this George Duke song, this country song, this contemporary pop song?' The answer is: Sure."
Dunton's point is that, unlike in New York, "Nobody here says 'I'm a jazz musician'." And she realizes that the improvised music coming out of L.A. sounds different from the New York variety. "There are these very serious jazz elements in my music," she says, "but at the same time I think this is an art form that can reach more people if we don't try to make it too esoteric. I love hip-hop and pop and electronica. It's just how I hear music. But I also love jazz and love to solo. My bandmates are that way too—musicians with jazz training but who now work in the L.A. melting pot."
The difference, perhaps, is that while new jazz projects coming out of New York these days are likely to be focused on complex time signatures, Dunton's music focuses on a different kind of rhythmic variety and complexity. "Rhythm is what I just love. I'm just really into different rhythmic feelings. I have always been fascinated by it."
"But I'm not an odd time signature freak. I studied Cuban music in college, Brazilian music. In Cuban music everybody has a part, and I'd play those rhythms in my car. In Brazilian music I got into all the different styles. As a composer, I sit at the piano and I just play what I hear. I don't think, What would be cool here is a 7/8 part. I usually compose by using VoiceMemo. The tunes are never an exercise in how badass we are."
She's right. You listen, for example to "Thank You and Goodnight" for its natural flow and sunny ease, but if you try count all the sections and figure out exactly where "the one" is at certain times, you're likely to be wrong. It keep surprising you without baffling. It's complex without seeming like a chore.
Discovering Jazz Late
Perhaps it's notable that Dunton came to jazz a bit later than some players.
"I don't even remember starting to play—I did it so early," she recalls. "I just played music constantly. I was a really good sight-reader, so I could come home from school, and just read music. I didn't watch TV or anything. In high school, I didn't play jazz. I played in the pit orchestra for musicals. I didn't even know that that people were improvising or what improvising really was until I got to college. I was even reading transcriptions of solos and didn't understand the concept that the player was making it up."
She loved the sound of the music, however. And while she headed off to the University of Virginia for college planning to major in biology, she soon found herself auditioning for the jazz band. "They put a lead sheet in front of me, and I didn't know what it was. I wasn't a music major—I had become a Spanish major."
Dunton was good enough, however, to play with the faculty on their gigs around Charlottesville, and "so I learned in survival mode to just make it. I didn't have the lab band experience. I was very organic and very loose." She credits trumpeter and faculty member John D'earth with "changing my life in music and giving me who I am now. It was less about the music than about how to experience music in your life. He was an unorthodox teacher. He's the one who said, 'You have to do music'."
Dunton arrived at North Texas State for a graduate degree but lacking some skills. "I didn't feel behind. Though I've always felt like I was being thrown in the deep end. They had me help teach a class, and I had to do a lot of fast learning. I think these experiences informed me as a musician and composer and helped me not to feel like I'm copying others."
At North Texas, Dunton met and played for a while with Michael League and Snarky Puppy, which was getting started there. "It was still not in my reality that I could be living my life with a band. Before I graduated from North Texas, my mom saw a job in LA in music marketing, and I got it, so I left Snarky to take the job. It wasn't a real thing in my mind that people toured with a band right out of school. Immediately I realized this job was not the right thing. But instead of focusing on my music, I got a scholarship to USC to pursue a Ph.D in music." In essence, this is why Dunton ended up as a late bloomer as a composer and performer on her own.
"Now I'm in my 30s, but only recently have I said I'm a composer, I'm an artist. But I've traveled a long way with a sound in mind that I want to present it to the world. And I'm ready."
The music that came out earlier this year was from Dunton's trio: her keyboards, electric bass from Cooper Appelt, and drummer Jake Reed. The sound of the band reflected Dunton's interests: rhythm, melody, texture, and dynamics. She is the leader—"yes, they are my compositions," she notes—but "I'm trying to present this music as from a band, not as a solo artist. I want it to have a cohesive sound, the sound of this band."
What's new from the band's previous efforts is Dunton's use of keyboards other than acoustic piano. There is a warm blend on trioKAIT 2 of piano, Fender Rhodes electric piano (often played with some effects pedals: Echoplex, MXR Phaser, a wah-wah pedal), Wurlitzer electric piano, and the OB-6 analog, polyphonic synthesizer from Dave Smith Instruments. The blend, particularly with the round-tone electric bass and the recording technique on the drums, is warm and woody, not cold.
"I'd never touched a Rhodes or Wurlitzer on any of my other records," Dunton affirms. "As recently as August of last year, I set up the Rhodes in the garage, I got some effects pedals, and I was so inspired by the sounds I got that I was writing completely different music than before." Only half of the songs on trioKait 2 were written on the acoustic piano. For the others, the process of composition itself relied on hearing and feeling the textures of these analog electric keyboards. The sound, essentially, can become the key to the composition.
Dunton explains that "OCD" is really a simple song, "but because of the effects it's exciting." The fusion-y rocker uses a synth and Rhodes to keep Dunton shoulder-to-shoulder with the bass and drums, using a bass figure and call-and-response patterns in her right hand to keep everything cycling together. "J & J's" leverages Wurlitzer electric piano in creating a greasy quasi-Motown pocket. "Frontier" layers up synth and Rhodes, to create a small symphony in the Stevie Wonder manner. "Thematic" blends acoustic piano and washes of electric piano to generate a mysterious atmosphere that takes advantage of both instruments' unique reverb. In the tune's second half, however, the groove is double-timed and piano now blends with a high, distant synth.
"Pure Imagination", the Anthony Newley song from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, may be the best example of Dunton's painterly use of different keyboards. "That one was totally inspired by sounds. I was just tweaking the preset sounds on the OB-6, just using my ears. Because it was so new, it was really freeing—I just did what I liked, and I wasn't worried about whether it was right or wrong. The Rhodes and whispering, flutey synths turn it into an odd, dreamy cover of a song you don't hear on many jazz recordings.
"We are now recreating the keyboard blends live. We've had lots of success with it. We have some super-fans who've said they were worried seeing me setting up the keyboards, but it's going great!"
Making It in Creative Music — and as a Woman
Dunton is one of the many musicians who has chosen to make a living by pursuing music in several ways at once. Her own CDs sell at gigs, "depending on where we play . . . if it's an older crowd, we do well on sales." And she does make the money back that spends on recording. "My goal is to make the money back from production over time. The back catalog is making money. Streaming can really gather momentum. If you're not going to embrace that, you have your head under a rock." More reliable, Dunton says, is teaching, of course, and she does that as well as recording with and for other people.
The problem of being a woman in creative music remains undeniable. "The problem is that there aren't enough role models or visibility. Doing my doctorate, I had to research this—all this stuff saying 'Women aren't cut out for jazz'. And sometimes you know you're not getting hired because it's a 'look' thing." "You have to play better than the men onstage to just blend in," Dunton says. "I've gotten comments like 'I've never seen a girl play like that.'" Denton feels, however, that she has never felt she could not get somewhere because she was a woman. "Mostly I've avoided this stuff by being a band leader. I'm married to my drummer, the bassist is a good friend. I have no problems on the bandstand."
And where is trioKAIT playing these days? They are a jazz group in many ways, yet they don't sound entirely bounded by that term. "It's mostly jazz clubs. But we are on the newer edge of playing jazz though. I'd like to get more involved in the festival circuit. We're just trying to play were we can."
Hearing trioKAIT 2, you sense that the band—with its hook-filled melodies and grooves and shimmering textures—could probably play venues and small theaters that go beyond jazz. But all instrumental bands have that challenge. Does trioKAIT seem like it could be the next Medeski Martin & Wood or the Bad Plus?
Based on the most recent music, why not?