HE MAY BE NEW TO THE ROOTS CREW, but Mark Kelley has spent the last nine years honing his craft in the R&B and jazz trenches with everyone from Meshell Ndegeocello to John Scofield. Now his versatile, discerning style is on full display nightly via Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and on veteran vocalist Betty Wright’s latest CD, Betty Wright: The Movie.
Born in Houston, Texas, to a classical pianist dad and an R&B-loving physician mom, Kelley tried cello and guitar before settling on bass at age 13, after seeing his uncle play in church. At Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, he added upright to his repertoire, inspired by Christian McBride and Roland Guerin. A scholarship to Berklee followed, where his playing was further impacted by fellow students Chris Laughlin (Brian McKnight) and Reuben Rogers (Joshua Redman). Upon graduation, Kelley spent two years touring with Scofield’s Überjam band before moving to New York City in 2005. Meeting Ndegeocello through his doorman, who literally flagged her down walking by, Mark began six years of road work with the maverick Miss. A 2011 call from Roots drummer Questlove to sub for McBride in Quest’s Mo’ Meta Blues I band led to another to back Michael McDonald and Sara Bareilles at the 4th Annual Roots Picnic. A month and a half later, when Owen Biddle decided to depart the Roots, Kelley was offered the fulltime bass chair.
How has Questlove helped you handle your transition to the Roots?
He’s made it so easy, He basically wants me to play how I play, and he gives me the space within the groove to do that. We’re also going to be featuring my upright more. Quest has an impeccable understanding of different types of grooves and a vast knowledge of music from all eras, down to the personnel on albums. So if he does want something more specific, he may pinpoint an obscure record, or he’ll offer subtle tips like de-tuning my bass slightly to capture the sound of a certain era. Doing the Fallon show with the Roots has been fun; it’s fastpaced, and you have to be quick on your feet. At rehearsal each day, we write and record the music we’re going to do that night. Then, during the show, Quest will feed us the track we’re about to play from his laptop, through our in-ears. The biggest kick is coming up with music for the guest walk-ons. Like, for Howie Mandel, we played Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It,” singing, “This is How-ie Mandel!”
You use varying approaches to great effect on Betty Wright’s CD. How do you come up with your parts?
First, I listen to the drums or the loop, because most of the time my groove placement is behind the beat. I guess if I have a secret to how I come up with my grooves, it’s that I try to create a fl am between my bass note and the kick drum. Instead of being spot on with the kick, I try to be a little nudge behind. I also scoop into notes to get a slight lag—from a half-step below if it’s a major chord, or a whole-step below if it’s minor. Most of that developed from listening to Pino Palladino on D’Angelo’s Voodoo; Pino remains my main bass influence. Song-wise, my goal is to make the track move behind the vocalist. Even if it’s a ballad, I try to add more melodic and rhythmic colors than just roots on the downbeat.
What have you learned from being around Meshell for so many years?
Meshell’s greatest impact on me is her way of being as a person and as an artist. How she thinks and perceives things is pure genius; to watch a movie with her and hear her describe what she got from it is mindblowing. We’ll talk music, and who we’re fans of, but mostly we talk about life lessons and communication. Bass-wise, her playing has had a huge effect on me. There’s an African bounce in many of her bass lines that I’ve tried to incorporate. I’m pretty good at imitating other styles when I have to, but overall Meshell has a certain groove and placement with her parts that I just can’t cop—a serious pocket that’s all hers. Another one of her tenets is that your sound is in your head and your hands, not your gear.
HEAR HIM ON
The Roots, Undun [Def Jam, 2011]; Betty Wright & the Roots, Betty Wright: The Movie [S-Curve, 2011]; Meshell Ndegeocello, The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams [Emarcy/Universal, 2007]
BassesWarwick Star Bass II 5-string, Warwick Thumb SC fretless 5-string, Fodera NYC 5-string, ’64 Harmony H-22, old Kay upright
Rig Ampeg B-15, Ampeg SVT-CL and 8x10 cab, Ampeg Micro-VR 2x10 stack
Strings Medium La Bella stainless steel roundwounds and flatwounds