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Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, Kareem Kandi got an early start playing the saxophone, picking it up at age 11 while attending Washington Hoyt Elementary. In the seventh grade at Mason Middle School, Kandi began a nine-year stint of private lessons with the great saxophonist Tracy Knoop, who molded him into a well-rounded musician, covering technique, sight-reading, theory, ear training, improvisation and composition. The solid musical foundation Knoop crafted in Kandi prepared him for many musical genres and situations: classical, jazz, funk, rock, hip-hop, bluegrass - and even recording and teaching. "He also opened my eyes to lots of great music and musicians, both through his live performances, and by introducing me to recordings of artists that I had little knowledge of at the time," says Kandi of Knoop.
This transmission of knowledge and example from older to younger players is crucial to jazz. It's what separates the genre from pop music, where 20-somethings rule the day.
Knoop's teachings inspired Kandi to teach others. Today, Kandi divides his time teaching jazz improvisation as an artist in residence at The Tacoma School of the Arts, directing the award winning student jazz ensemble at Pierce College, conducting master classes and workshops at schools around the Puget Sound area and maintaining a full load of private students.
When he isn't in front of a chalkboard you can find him in front of an audience, either with the popular world-beat folk band the Paperboys, or leading his group the Kareem Kandi Band, for which he composes and arranges most of the music. A 2011 grant from the Tacoma Art Commission permitted Kandi to compose and record six new pieces, as well as Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Something Wonderful" on the newly-release CD, See What I'm Saying.
In celebration, and to fulfill his grant promise to perform the new work in a public setting, Kandi and cohorts - bassist Rob Hutchinson and drummer Julian MacDonough - will stage the new work Thursday, March 22 at the Tacoma School of the Arts Theater.
I caught up with Kandi to get his thoughts on the new projects and the Tacoma arts scene.
WEEKLY VOLCANO: How did you originally meet Rob and Julian?
KAREEM KANDI: I've been playing music with Julian for about 12 years. I heard him performing at a show with some friends of mine and shortly afterwards we started working together. I've been playing music with Rob for about two years. I met Rob at a jam session that I was hosting in Tacoma.
VOLCANO: Was the recording of See What I'm Saying an enjoyable process?
KANDI: We recorded the album at Sharp Nine Studios in Bellingham. It was a very enjoyable process mainly because I was working with great musicians and great engineers. We had one rehearsal to learn the material prior to recording and a few weeks later went into the studio. The session took about four hours and we did two or three takes of each of the eight songs. After recording, I took the rough mixes to Blissman studios in Tacoma and we mixed it together, which took about four hours. The entire process was very quick and professional and I am very pleased with the results.
VOLCANO: So ... What are you saying?
KANDI: Yes, the title. I end up saying that phrase a lot to my students throughout the day. Usually I am checking to make sure they really understand the material we are covering.
As for the title, I am posing the listener with the same question. With instrumental music, we don't have the luxury of lyrics that a listener can understand and relate to. If I want to write music about a particular subject or convey a certain type of atmosphere or mood, then I have to find a way to do this without the use of words. Sometimes I'm successful in getting the idea across musically and sometimes I'm not. In the end, as long as people enjoy the music and it makes their lives better, I've done my job correctly.
VOLCANO: Why did you choose "Something Wonderful" for the CD?
KANDI: I've loved the song since I was a child. I had forgotten about it and then a few years ago I saw King and I at The Tacoma Musical Playhouse. They did an excellent job and I remembered the song and now had the title. It's been on my to do list ever since and this project provided the perfect opportunity to work on it. It's a love song, but one that deals with the imperfections of love, forgiveness, and loving someone who can be hard to put with. I love the lyrics and you could easily apply them to a significant other or a family member. As a five year old I had no idea what the words meant but was drawn to the melody. Now that I'm older and have seen a bit more of life, the words have much more depth and meaning.
VOLCANO: What are you thoughts on the state of the arts in Tacoma?
KANDI: I've lived in Tacoma since 1979 and have watched the face and tone of the city change numerous times over the years.
I am of the opinion that Tacoma, now more than ever before, has an abundance of very talented and creative artists across many disciplines. At the same time it also has several strong networks of very well informed, passionate people who help promote and support the many avenues of it's art scene. It seems to me that over time the state of the arts will always be in a constant flux of having enough or not enough support. I don't ever see this pendulum changing. It will always be something that artists and the arts community will have to contend with. That being said, art and creativity always seem to find a way to survive the struggle. I think our arts scene is alive and well. It will have its ups and downs and we won't always agree, but due to our collective creativity and tenacity as a city we'll always find ways to make things work. Tacoma is the scrapper, the underdog that always seems to come out on top, and has loads of character. That's why I believe the arts here are alive and well and why I choose to live and work here.
[SOTA Theater, Thursday, March 22, 7 p.m., all ages, no cover, 1118 Commerce St., Tacoma]