Bill McKemy embraces his freedom and finds his Duende.

Stone Free 

Bill McKemy embraces his freedom and finds his Duende.

Despite Kansas City's resilient reputation as a jazz town, inconsistent audiences make Thursday-night gigs notoriously nerve-racking affairs for loyal players. For former Malachy Papers bassist Bill McKemy, a decent draw for his CD release party at the Blue Room must be a welcome sight. But as he circulates through the room between sets, McKemy remains on guard, as if the crowd could bolt out the door as soon as he turns his back.

McKemy slowly makes his way back to the stage for the evening's second set, moving from standards to cuts from his first solo outing, Duende. Becoming a frontman, he's learned, has its pros and cons.

"You've got about a thousand extra things to worry about besides the music," McKemy says. "The greatest thing about it is, I get to call the shots. I pick players who are great listeners, and that has amazing musical benefits. The creative control is a wonderful thing, but then on the other side, you have to do the legwork, promote the gig and take care of business."

The spotlight might be new to McKemy, but being onstage is definitely old hat. From the solemn quietude of Kirksville, Missouri's Northeast Missouri State University (now Truman State University) to the never-ending bustle of the East Coast, McKemy has anchored a number of professional bands for more than ten years. Yet it was his work with KC's avant-garde free-jazz trio Malachy Papers that garnered him a healthy amount of local notoriety. Since leaving that outfit, he has continued his propensity for tonal daring with Duende.

"I had some material and some people I thought would work well together," McKemy explains. "It was a group that had never performed together, but I had performed with each of the people in a different context. No one had really seen the tunes before. We went to a place that's just a big open room -- a good-sounding room and good performance space -- where we could just play live and have it recorded. It didn't feel like a studio, and that, I think, worked to our favor. We read through the charts of the tunes, just doing a couple of rehearsal runs. By the time we were ready to do a real take, it was sounding the way I wanted."

McKemy's taste stands as a departure from the more traditional tones typically emanating from Kansas City clubs, and his choice of instrumental colors and collaborators on Duende represents an even more radical break from the norm.

"Brian Baggett played in Einstein Electric, a popular jam band," McKemy says of the disc's electric guitarist. "But his musical sensibilities are way beyond that. He's an organic player.

"Jeffery Ruckma is from a different scene completely," continues McKemy, with regard to the disc's accordion and melodica player. "He's played keyboards in rock bands, but he's spent most of the past twenty years doing new music and composing contemporary classical-type stuff." Rounding out this crew are Chicago-based drummer Ryan Bennett and Sterling Holman, who add electronica to Duende's final track.

As diverse as the disc's lineup sounds, it's nothing compared to the final product. Aptly titled, Duende takes its name from the Spanish word for spirit or muse, a word that carried some strong associations for twentieth-century Spanish poet Frederico Garcia Lorca. In Lorca's view, duende describes the ethereal life force that artwork possesses on its own. Ranging from rhythmic Latin numbers to eclectic spaciness, McKemy explores this mystical territory, even if the seeds of his ideas come from more traditional fruit.

"When I wrote the stuff, I was thinking about a traditional piano/bass/drums rhythm section with trumpet and tenor playing the lines, so it'd be like a Blue Note quintet," McKemy says. "Once I had written it, I was looking at what I had and thinking to myself, how could I make this more interesting and bring in some influences that really turn me on outside of mainstream jazz? Some of those influences are strong ambient rock, dub reggae and the tango compositions of Astor Piazzolla. At the time I made the recording, I was playing in a tango band and getting to see all these great Piazzolla compositions for the first time, so that was a big magnetic pull."

At least half of the tracks, however, were improvised, a challenge for any group but especially one without an established history of performing together.

"'Shard,' 'Phantom Necklace Made Entirely of Human Teeth,' 'Siesta in Bad Tolz,' those were all completely free," McKemy reveals. "Those were recorded with no discussion about anything: about key, about tempo, about the mood of the piece, who would play the lead."

Although Duende reflects the gift for free-form dialogue McKemy and company share, it also challenges the ears of the traditionalists and preservationists who dominate Kansas City jazz audiences. Yet the younger listeners, those who have found their way to the fringes of contemporary jazz through groups such as Medeski, Martin and Wood, will find themselves right at home.

"The young audience is completely OK with free improvisation," McKemy enthusiastically offers. "They don't have any qualms about it. They're not going to raise their eyebrows for a second. If we're vamping over a certain chord and the guitarist and I are both sampling ourselves and playing over it, the young guys are with us all the way. There seems to be among that audience, for the most part, an incredibly open and receptive feeling about all music. When they go to hear things, they seem to carry with them this attitude of, 'Lay it on me; I want to hear what you have to say' rather than 'I'm here to hear this certain kind of thing, and if I don't receive this product as I perceive it, then I'm not going to be satisfied with my experience.' They're like, 'Yeah, freak out, go for it, do whatever.'"

When it comes to scaring off audiences that might not be as accepting of McKemy's atmospheric explorations, the young bassist takes an optimistic stance. "Kansas City has incredible potential, for the most part, because the musicians are here," he says. "There are musicians here that could be doing anything anywhere, and they're here, and that makes a great potential for something big and bold and new to happen in the future."

Although Kansas City's talent pool runs deep, McKemy tempers his enthusiasm when considering the uphill battle he often faces when booking gigs for his brand of cutting-edge jazz. Questions from club owners range from the inane ("So why don't you have a singer?" or "Will you guys play 'Satin Doll' and other requests?") to sheer skepticism ("Are you guys a jam band or something?").

"What Kansas City really needs is a club that is willing to take some chances because of its love for music," McKemy says. "I'm convinced that the majority of the audience for art music of whatever sort, but new jazz in particular, is largely untapped." McKemy pauses for a beat, then continues. "Part of it is also a historical perception of what Kansas City jazz is that might not always be so incredibly accurate. It could fit a number of different definitions depending who you are talking to. What is Kansas City jazz? That's a great question by itself."

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