In this interview with bassist Kai Eckhardt, known for his bass work with musicians such as John McLaughlin, Billy Cobham and Trilok Gurtu (just to name a few) He also created a couple of solo albums like Zeitgeist, and bass guitar lessons like Atomic Bass: Reactive Intervals on Truefire.
Here you can read his awesome journey in music and his passion for the bass guitar and worldwide music.
The future lies in growing a heart for the world, and not being blind to the incredible suffering created by ignorance and corporate greed. – Kai Eckhardt
How would you introduce yourself?
My name is Kai Eckhardt. I live in Berkeley California and am married with 2 children.
I am a professional musician since 1987 and earn my living as a performer, studio musician, and teacher. I am an associate professor at California Jazz Conservatory and UC Berkeley. I am also an activist who advocates for the rights of artists. Last year I became president of the board of directors for Artists United. For 8 years I run a successful online mentorship program helping bassists evolve and establish solid practice habits.
You use a lot of chords and melody in your basswork. How did you develop that style? What/who was your influence?
I grew up during the jazz-rock era listening to Stanley Clarke, Weather report and the Headhunters. I was also drawn to slap-bass style early on and wanted to find a way to combine the technique with jazz harmony. After working with Indian musicians for many years I began to expand the style further into odd meters by combining funk with the mathematics of Indian classical music.
You have played in some great music groups and with some great musicians. John McLaughlin and Trilok Gurtu to name a few. How did you end up playing with them?
John McLaughlin formed a new trio in the mid-80s which included Jeff Berlin and Trilok Gurtu. After personal differences with Jeff, John approached his friend Gary Burton at Berklee College of music in search of a new bassist. Gary was my improvisation teacher and recommended me along with Jimmy Earl and Baron Brown.
I was lucky to be the first to audition and John decided to hire me without auditioning anyone else.
Of all the different basses you have/play, do you have a favorite?
Yes. It is the Kai Eckhardt signature 5 string built by female Iranian luthier Parizad Hatcher. I was able to help design the instrument over a course of 2 years. Since May of 2018, this instrument is now available on the market via the PHD (Parizad Hatcher design) website. It is a lightweight instrument designed to sound great for various styles capable of emulating the sound of many bass guitars. Unique is the addition of Piezo pickups in the bridge which sound wonderful for chordal work. A fretless bass by the same Luthier is currently in production as well. The craftsmanship is amazing because Parizad studied many other bass guitars in a quest to integrate the best parts of each.
What are some major milestones in your life?
I guess the first one was surviving my childhood marked by many changes and relocations. I was born and raised bi-racial in Germany by my mother who relocated me to Liberia West Africa to be with my father. I left Africa in 1970 to enter a foster home in Germany. I graduated from German high school with the second best GPA of the class of ‘81. I became a junior champion in my county in diving in the 1 and 3-meter diving board competition before starting with music. Another milestone was objecting to the German military and working with severely handicapped children over the course of 2 years. After that music became my main focus and I moved to the US to study at Berklee from which I graduated with honors in 1987. Right out of college I began touring the world with John McLaughlin’s trio until 1990. Recording “Live at the Royal Festival Hall” was a major highlight. Between 1990 and 1992 I was a primary caregiver to my 82-year foster father who suffered from Parkinson’s disease. After getting married in 1992 I soon became a father and co-raised 2 children who are both colleges bound at the moment. Keeping the family together with the insecurities of being a musician was also something I do not take for granted. My most recent accomplishment is to be an activist for artists and serving on the board of directors for Artists United.
How would you describe “Success” in the music business?
My definition of success in the music business is to survive the long game of constantly changing circumstances without breaking up the family or going out of business. Fame and fortune in music are a constant up and down. To stay healthy in mind throughout the ups and downs is more of a success than pointing to career accomplishments. The ultimate level of success is giving back to the community by helping young musicians navigate the treacherous path of being an artist in a tech and money driven society.
What is the latest music project you are working on?
I am currently working on a piece of music dedicated to raising awareness about the separation of families at the US Mexican border. This was (and continues to be) a low point in this country’s recent history and we artists feel compelled to address this issue for the sake of being human. Kala Ramnath who is an Indian classical virtuoso is my partner in creating the composition. We will then invite other musicians to participate. Nobody is getting paid and proceeds will go to charity.
What does a typical music day in your life look like?
I spend a lot of time in my studio in Oakland where I teach, rehearse and communicate with my online students. I also run a recording studio where creative work happens such as the one mentioned above. I communicate between Berkeley where I live and Oakland where I work. When it is time to go on the road I prepare the music and deal with travel logistics. My band Garaj Mahal which started in 2000 is back on the map after a 7-year hiatus and we are playing shows again. We are booking shows for the fall and for 2019. I also spend time at home mostly on the weekends to be with my wife and kids. We go on little road trips as a family and watch movies. As president of the board of Artists United, I communicate with other board members and go to regular board meetings. (Ted Moore the head of UC Jazz is our most recent addition to the board) I also spend as much time as possible doing creative work such as developing interactive art projects and creative exercises for my students.
What advice would you give other musicians/bass players that are just starting out?
My main advice right now is to network, network, and network some more. Our music scene is terribly dysfunctional after being hollowed out continuously since the heyday in the late 1980s. Someone took a sledgehammer to it and it will never come back to what it was in the same way. All means of earning a living have been compromised to the degree that very talented musicians can no longer earn a living. The future lies in organizing, getting informed and fighting back. It’s critical.
We have to understand why big streaming companies like Spotify and Pandora are not the solution. They pay out pitiful royalties. They are good for consumers and terrible for artists. Selling our own CD’s is also not the way because everything online will be pirated. Information is cheap. The future lies in growing a heart for the world, and not being blind to the incredible suffering created by ignorance and corporate greed. Understanding Blockchain technology is key -which offers a real future for controlling one’s own creative content and doing business without a middleman. Touring more is not the solution. It’s not family friendly and comes with a giant carbon footprint. We have to realize that our society’s business model is broken and will continue to be so until we the artists unite and take control of our own affairs. We have to become a force of nature taking control of our own destiny. The tools are there and the technology is awesome. In the bigger picture, we have to replace the competitive model with a new tech-savvy model of co-operation and self-reliance. We have to stop trying to be #1 or competing for the few lucrative gigs that still exist and work for the health of the entire artist ecosystem. Everyone who reads this should immediately join Artists-United. It’s free and takes 5 minutes to sign up. Amazing things are happening, but most musicians are uninformed, isolated and not empowered. The future does not look good for anyone unless we huddle together to become a force to be reckoned with.
Where can people find you, and why should they connect with you?
Thank you for this opportunity,
All the best, Kai
Thank you, Kai, for this awesome interview!
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