Patrick Kunka - New York-based Jazz Drummer & Composer

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“Taking Off” / from Jazzwise May 2010

Currently a postgrad student in the US, Scottish drummer PATRICK KUNKA is the latest in a promising line of young Scottish jazz players to make their mark. JACK MASSARIK does the introductions as Kunka debuts.

No, no, surely some mistake here, I felt, grabbing for the sleeve booklet. This group cannot be Scottish, or for that matter British or even European. Warming up my CD desk was Patrick Kunka’s debut album as leader, The Edge. Admittedly his chosen field, the open-ended yet hard-swinging ethos of the last Miles Davis acoustic quintet, is one of my favourite periods of music, but I wasn’t prepared for the quality of the performances.

From the first note Kunka’s drumming crackled, as they say, with crispness and authority. And his youthful quartet oozed hipness from every pore. Their sound, their spirit, their technical ability, their mature use of tension and release, might have been the work of seasoned stars twice their age. Their teamwork, rhythmic momentum and contrasting sensitivity during the album’s balladic moments were also world class.

And their material, all by Kunka, wasn’t bad either. Deceptive simple themes, as melodic as early Wayne Shorter’s, they sounded easy to play but the spacy phrases carried an inbuilt rhythmic kick and the natural chord progressions that cry out for inventive improvisers. These they found in pianist Alan Benzie, whose whipcrack energy recalls early Herbie Hancock, and Leah Gough-Cooper, who takes off like a blazing Kenny Garrett on alto and soprano saxes.

Joined by US bassist Dylan Coleman, this impressive trio, all born or raised in Scotland, is currently working in the eastern seaboard of the US but Kunka has appeared at festivals in France, Switzerland and Panama in recent months. I caught up with Kunka on a noisy line to Boston, where he is in the final year of a Masters degree in jazz performance at the New England Conservatory of Music. I asked him first about his surname. “One of my grandfathers was Ukranian, hence the name, but I also have a French grandmother, so I’m a bit of everything really. I came to Aberdeen when I was 11, but was born in Malmesbury, in Wiltshire, on 24 April 1986.” A passing Chinese astrologist would have pointed out that this was a year of the Tiger, as indeed is 2010, which should make this a propitious year for Patrick Kunka.

“My dad’s a geologist and traveled a lot,” he explained. “The oil business took him and his young family (I have a younger brother) to Aberdeen and that’s where we stayed.” Was there music at home? “Yes. Dad played Scottish and Irish music on fiddle and guitar, and my mother was always a jazz-lover. She had records by Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, some Miles Davis and Art Blakey too. I first took up drums at about eight, playing a bit of piano and trumpet before that. Until we moved north I had lessons from an excellent teacher called Richard Pells, who noticed I was left-handed and encouraged me stay that way, which some instructors don’t. He was right-handed but could demonstrate the basics left-handed, which was a great asset. Later I found out that many great drummers were left-handed, including Lenny White, and Phil Collins. In Aberdeen I played drums in my bedroom for five or six years, joining rocks bands at school at 14. I was then into progressive rock and later fusion, people like Santana, Hendrix and Billy Cobham. Weather Report then became a huge influence on me. I even took up the bass guitar. I always heard music in terms of harmony and not just as a drummer. At school I got the Advanced Higher (Scottish A Level) certificate in music. One of my teachers, Bill Kemp was a jazz drummer and brought Wayne Shorter and Coltrane albums to my notice. You could say he introduced me to straight-ahead jazz.”

While still at school Patrick gigged around the city, playing at jam sessions and with Ceilidh bands too. Then came the turning point. “In 2004 and 2005 I attended the Jazzwise summer school in Richmond, where I met Steve Davis, a great American drummer who showed me how to practice properly and quantify my progress. I was really hooked after that and determined to become a professional musician. I also learned about Berklee and applied for a partial scholarship there. I got it after passing one of their ‘world scholarship tour’ auditions in Dublin. I was awestruck when I arrived. So many great drum teachers there, and former students like Antonio Sanchez, who joined Pat Metheny, and was a huge influence to me at the time. Among my peers, I admired drummer Jeff Fajardo, saxophonist Alex Han, now with Marcus Miller, and a great French pianist Cedric Hanriot who recently recorded with Terri Lyne Carrington and John Patitucci.”

The Scots McMafia, how did that form? “I guess we hung together because we felt a long way from home. Berklee is a huge place – jazz is just a part of it, but the emphasis now is on all types of contemporary music. I showed pianist Alan Benzie around. A fine player, very rhythmically aware, I’d already been there a couple of years and introduced him to bassist Dylan (Coleman), who comes from rural Massachusetts and plays great piano too, so he has excellent harmonic understanding. Then I met Leah (Gough-Cooper), who comes from a small farm in Dumfriesshire, in the middle of nowhere. She studied with Laura McDonald and Paul Towndrow in Scotland. People compare her with Kenny Garrett, but of all of us I would say she is the most distinctive and unique musician. She plays with such freedom.”

Thinking of Tony Williams, I asked which drummers had most influenced him. “Yes, I like Miles a lot and wore out the Nefertiti album, but also Elvin (Jones) of course and among modern players Greg Hutchinson, Jeff Watts, Gary Novak and Chris Dave, who is tremendous on the Kenny Garrett album, Standard of Language.” One of Patrick’s album themes is ‘Mode for Max’. Was it dedicated to Max Roach? “Yes. When he died there was a memorial concert for him at Berklee and I wrote that piece for it.” What next? “I had always planned to do postgraduate work, so right now I’m here at New England Conservatory, studying with the great tenor player George Garzone [briefly heard in London in February] who is one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. He hears everything I play, and recognises my weaknesses in ways that a drummer wouldn’t. I’d say he’s having a very profound effect on my playing.”

And after graduating? “I’ll get back to performing. I’d like to stay in the States but the cost of living in Boston or New York is so high I’m considering a base in Continental Europe. From there its relatively easy to work in the UK as well as France, Germany and Switzerland.”