‘I don’t believe in labels such as fusion and jazz’ - Rafal Sarnecki talks with pianist David Kikoski

Rafał Sarnecki
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One of your first major gigs was with Roy Haynes’ group. You started playing with Roy in your early twenties and that collaboration has lasted from then well into the present day (most recently with his group at the Blue Note NYC last year). What is the most precious thing that you learned from Roy?


There is no one precious thing more than the others. Although, he is probably the most precious musician and person that I ever learned from. My father was a musician, a pretty good one. I learned a lot from him. But Roy Haynes was sort of my father in that professional world of jazz legends. He was the first really famous genius musician who discovered me when I was 23 and just out of college. He played with Charlie Parker, he played with John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis… He played with all my heroes! He was on so many of those records that I was listening to at Berklee and the stuff that my father used to listen to. I learned how to play music from those records… and from my father. But then, when I started playing in Roy Haynes’s band, he was telling me all the stories about Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk. I could listen to all the records but… he played with all those people! So I learned more about music from him than anyone. And I also learned about life. I learned about traveling on the road, dealing with people from different countries, finding a way to live in this world playing music. He didn’t speak good Spanish or French or German or anything but he had a way of dealing with people from all cultures and making sure that we were taken care of, making sure that we were respected.


In speaking of you Roy Haynes has said ‘Dave has so much feeling. He can play anything. I can depend on him for so much.’ Which qualities of piano players are the most crucial if you want to be an in demand artist and someone that others can depend on? What do you think convinced Roy to invite you to play with his group?

Well… it’s a funny story… When I went out to his house - he didn’t have a piano at his house - I had to carry my Fender Rhodes electric piano. But you know, he played with Chick Corea and sometimes they did gigs with Fender Rhodes, he’s done electric music before he met me. When I got to his house I realized that I forgot the sustain pedal. I didn’t think I would need it anyway but I thought maybe for a ballad it would be nice to have the sustain to let the chords ring. So I said ‘Oh Roy, I’m really sorry, I forgot my sustain pedal for my electric piano…’ and he said ‘You’re not gonna need that with me! I like a very crisp piano style like Chick Corea and Bud Powell…’ But Chick and Bud were like two of my favorite piano players! So I was like: ‘oh good!’ I had all the records of him and Chick, I also had all the records of him and Bud Powell. Even on the records that he did with Coltrane and McCoy they would do a ballad but they would always put a double time tempo where McCoy wouldn’t use a sustain pedal. And McCoy was my other favorite. Roy played with all my favorite piano players so when we played together he liked me because he knew I checked those guys out.

Recently I read an interview with Kevin Hays in Jazz Times which was a kind of a blindfold test and the author played your ‘From the Hip’ album. Kevin said ‘Dave’s an incredible musician, man. There’s nothing he can’t do.’ He also mentioned the legend about how you broke your right hand and played gigs with the Mingus Big Band with only left hand sounding even more incredible than with the right hand. So, is there actually something that you can’t do on your instrument? What do you practice these days?

I still study Herbie, the stuff he did in the 60’s and every other phase of his career as well. I don’t think anyone has matched his genius in terms of jazz piano playing. But I also listen to Keith Emerson with the Nice in the 60’s. And I enjoy it just as much as I enjoy Herbie Hancock with Miles Davis. I enjoy pop music and jazz and classical music. I like everything. But in terms of like ‘flat out’ jazz piano playing - swinging improvised music, many people talk about ‘the big four’- Herbie, Keith, McCoy and Chick. And then Kenny Kirkland came around. After ‘the big four’ Kenny was one of my favorites… and Mulgrew Miller. I didn’t listen to them that much but I respect them and love them. I took a lesson with Mulgrew Miller. 

I’m also into many other piano players: rock music, classical music… I like Jan Hammer, one of my favorites of his is ‘The First Seven Days’. And as I mentioned before I love Keith Emerson. The thing about Keith is, out of all these people he was the only one who made a piano concerto. He is sort of my hero. He is the only guy who wrote a piano concerto, sold out a Madison Square Garden with his rock band Emerson, Lake & Palmer in the 70s and was able to play jazz and swing. He did everything. He is the only one! Recently I’ve been playing and recording some of his compositions. I also like George Duke. And of course there is Art Tatum who was a freak of nature. Bud Powell is one of my all time heroes as well.


When I visited New York for the first time in 2004 I saw your performance at the Iridium with the Randy Brecker/Bill Evans group which was playing jazz-rock fusion. Do you miss the fusion era in jazz?


No!! Because I still do that! 


But it’s pretty rare to hear this style of jazz in New York these days…


I don’t really believe in labels such as fusion and jazz etc. It gets in the way of the music. I still enjoy playing electric keyboards. I still have a Fender Rhodes, a Wurlitzer electric piano and a Minimoog. Some of my new songs I’ve been playing with my electric keyboards. My new album  called ‘Kayemode' is coming out on May 23 on Criss Cross label and we’re gonna have a record release that night at the Jazz Standard. The drummer on the record swings so hard but he’s also got a funky contemporary feel. He plays with Branford Marsalis group. His name is Justin Faulkner. The bass player is Joe Martin and he plays acoustic. There is a mixture of different feels.


Recently you played a trio gig at Smalls with two of my good friends Rick Rosato and Colin Stranahan who represent the young generation of the New York jazz scene. 

Yes, that was December 26th. It was great! They learned my tunes and they play the hell out of my tunes! They played it great! I was happy because I did one or two new tunes that I didn’t do on my new record and they played those songs great! Colin is a great drummer and Rick is a great bass player. They are really nice people. 

When you play with young artists such as Rick or Colin do you feel like they surprise you with new fresh ideas and concepts of playing which didn’t exist in the past?

I think they make the music better! I love playing with younger musicians like Justin, Rick and Colin because it keeps me fresh. And I love playing with older musicians because they have that experience that I also learn a lot from.

This is an interview for a Polish jazz website so I would like to ask you about your experience playing in Poland. You have toured in Poland on various occasions: with Krzysztof Zawadzki, Piotr Lemańczyk. What are your strongest memories, funniest situations which you remember from this country?


I’m Polish, my father is Polish. Kikoski is a Polish name. I have very fond memories of being in Poland and seeing my Polish roots. I’ve been to very interesting places. One time we went to Auschwitz with the late great Bob Berg, that was a dark trip… I also went to Cracow. My other experiences in Poland were very happy. I enjoyed playing with Polish musicians. And Chopin was Polish. He is one of my favorites. I also recall making a record and touring with a Polish bass player…

Andrzej Cudzich? 

Yes! Gary Thomas was on that gig as well.

Who are your favorite European jazz pianists?

I don’t remember that many names but Michel Petrucciani was one of my favorites. I used to carry him outside on my shoulders so that he could take a pee. He was a really good pianist. These days there are so many great jazz piano players from everywhere in the world. Jazz piano is everywhere because of the internet. Many musicians from that generation sound a little similar to Kenny Kirkland. But when I met Kenny Kirkland he said ‘I love the way you sound’. I asked him why. He answered ‘You sound like me but you don't play any of my licks, you play your own shit.’ I was very proud to hear that. Kenny and I were going through some similar life changes and we were planning on getting together and talking about life and music. Kenny also liked George Duke and I heard that in his playing with Sting. I think we both had that George Duke influence which he confirmed. And we both loved Keith Jarrett. I was anxious to show him some of my Keith Jarrett transcription. And then two weeks later he was dead… we were just beginning to become friends.