Most musicians wait a lifetime to share stages with their musical heroes. Hoping to accomplish such a feat while still racking up college credits would be considered nothing more than a pipe dream. But having performed with such esteemed artists as Meshell Ndegeocello, Talib Kweli, and Victor Wooten as well as serving as music director for such acclaimed artists as Bilal and Lalah Hathaway, it’s safe to say that 21-year-old bassist Kenneth “Gizmo” Rodgers has been living that dream for quite some time now. With a wealth of experience that belies his years touting a vast array of musical influences spanning the realms of jazz, pop, funk, rock, Latin, and hip-hop, Gizmo is set to unveil his debut sonic masterpiece Red Balloon. Produced by bassist Derrick Hodge (Robert Glasper Experiment, Kanye West, Common) with glints of spoken word and soul, Red Balloon is a wondrous 13-track odyssey through the multi-faceted human experience.
“When you see a little kid let a balloon go at a carnival, everybody kind of looks up at it as it floats away,” explains Gizmo of the project’s captivating central theme. “The balloon seems to float around, trying to find its way. I feel like that’s how most people are. We’re all trying to figure out who we are, what we want to do, and what we stand for. All striving to be special, loved, or valued in some kind of way. And everybody’s kind of watching you as you float around this life. But if the pressure gets too high, it pops at some point.” A labor of love recorded over the course of three years in Boston between gigs and classes at Berklee College of Music, the deeply personal album features an impressive cast of thousands including Casey Benjamin of the Robert Glasper Experiment, accomplished pianist/ Berklee professor George Russell, Jr, Downbeat magazine Rising Star drummer Jamire Williams and more.
Reared in Philadelphia in a household brimming with the influences of his Puerto Rican and African-American heritage, Gizmo was introduced to the sounds of salsa and soul at an early age. Though his spectacular bass facility evokes the promise and the prowess of legends such as Jaco Pastorious and Stanley Clarke, the instrument was actually the Philadelphia native’s second choice. “When I was in elementary, I wanted to play drums,” says Gizmo. “But they said I had big hands, so I started playing bass. I just went from there.” Yet it wasn’t until being accepted into the highly competitive statewide Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts program at the age of 16 that Gizmo began to seriously contemplate music as a fulfilling career. Instructed by professors from Berklee and Julliard at the 5-week program, Gizmo was inspired to hone his talent and stretch out in the fertile musical environment. “I had five weeks where I practiced, played, and did music everyday. I was studying seriously. Compared to my peers, I always felt like I was behind because I started late. So I worked extra hard to get where I needed to be. From that point, all I did was play in jazz groups and hip-hop cover groups in Philly.”
While at the program, Gizmo was instructed by pianists Russell and George Burton (Ornette Coleman, Christian McBride, and Wayne Shorter). Burton recommended that the young jazz hopeful get in touch with his close friend Hodge for further tutorship. The two hit it off immediately. “I went over to Derrick’s house for a lesson and was there for like three hours. We just had a really good connection. He’s been like a big brother to me since that point.” While his iPod playlist consisted of the illustrious catalog of jazz giants such as Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane, he was also introduced to the music of recording artist and fellow bassist Meshell Ndegeocello during this formative period. “That blew my mind. Her music helped me to start paying attention to lyrics. On a deeper level, her music helped me to be a more open human being. It helped to break down the stigmas that I had in my mind in terms of what type of music you’re supposed to play if you’re black.”
After a semester spent in the jazz program at the University of Miami, Gizmo set sail for the more expansive halls of higher learning at the Berklee College of Music. During his first semester at Berklee, Gizmo developed a rapport with Ndegeocello who came to the school for a musician’s clinic. The two solidified a friendship while performing at a subsequent concert in Los Angeles with the Miguel Atwood-Ferguson Ensemble. By his second semester, Gizmo had assumed the role of music director of Berklee’s Neo Soul Ensemble, began gigging across the globe as a music director, and became an in-demand musician at venues such as the world famous Blue Note. During his travels, he performed and developed bonds with such accomplished musicians as Benjamin, Marcus Strickland, Dana Hawkins, and Marc De Clive-Lowe. In addition, Gizmo managed to secure endorsements from an impressive list of bass equipment and accessories companies such as Aguilar Amplifications, Mono Case, Dean Markely Strings, and Levy Leathers.
By the end of his first year at Berklee, Gizmo had broadened both his resume and his musical horizons exponentially. “Everything started picking up,” he says. “It became more than just about playing bass at that point. It was about learning how to write parts for horns, strings, and harmonies for background vocals.” As music director for the Neo Soul Ensemble, he’d successfully music directed shows by Bilal and Lalah Hathaway. Being surrounded by such an awe-inspiring group of successful artists and musicians, Gizmo was inspired to begin putting his experience and education to use by sketching out sonic ideas of his own. Three years and countless ideas later, Red Balloon is the grand result. “When I first started, it wasn’t about me making a record. I was just recording stuff. I was just trying to write music for myself.” Beginning his journey with the funky spoken word-influenced “Sleepblah,” Gizmo eventually amassed an impressive collection of tunes culled from demos recorded in Puerto Rico, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. Red Balloon also includes a little help from Berklee friends such as Nick Hakim, Darien Jovan, Derrick Cobbs, and BET’s 106 & Park Wild Out Wednesdays featured artist Gwen Bunn.
The album’s expansive and mesmerizing title track will serve as the lead single. “That was one of the last songs I ended up recording,” reveals Gizmo. “It’s about shedding the anxieties and judgements we have about each other. It’s about overcoming obstacles and accepting that seasons change. And above all that, continuing to try and fly.” Hip-hop artist/ Berklee professor Brian “Raydar” Ellis drops rapid-fire verses on the funky head nod excursion “Invalid.” Singer-songwriter Nick Hakim is featured on the album’s brilliant second single “Lift Me Up.” Penned by Hakim and co-produced by Gizmo, “Lift Me Up” exemplifies Gizmo’s ability to condense his disparate influences into a soulful marvel of a gem. “The song is reflective of a place where most of us have been, in terms of questioning what decision to make and where we’re going to end up,” he explains.
In addition to his own bass prowess, Red Balloon finds Gizmo contributing percussion, keyboards, and stepping behind the microphone for the first time as a singer. “My concept at first was to write these songs and have other people sing them,” he admits. “But because of Meshell and Derrick saying, ‘Nobody’s going to have the same amount of emotional connection to the song as you will,’ I just let myself go and recorded it.” Following the advice of his mentors, Gizmo is featured singing lead vocals and reciting spoken word on cuts such as “Dancing,” “Insane,” and his enthralling rendition of the 2008 Kings Of Leon hit song “Use Somebody.” Red Balloon will be released in association with progressive jazz boutique brand Revive Music. At the helm of the album’s artwork is Roland Nichol, graphic designer of jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding’s 2011 Grammy-winning album Chamber Music Society.
Buttressed by the contributions of a vibrant collective of mentors, colleagues, and classmates, Red Balloon stands firmly as a dynamic undertaking by a promising young artist. Coalesced by Gizmo’s own unique talent, it is a brazen statement from a new cadre of artists seeking to meld their formal jazz training with new sounds and modalities. It’s clear that Gizmo and Red Balloon are representative of this group of artists in a chapter of change with an allegiance to the groove. “I definitely see it as a movement,” says Gizmo. “It all stems from the idea of going with the moment. I’ve been struggling what to call my music, and I really don’t know what to say. To me, in my heart, I feel like it’s jazz - although we’re not swinging. Some people might say it’s alternative because I have some pop and some dubstep influences on there as well. But I feel like I’m just trying to make honest music, not doing something just because it’s in style. I just let me influences fly free. It wasn’t a conscious thought; it’s just naturally what’s inside me. There’s just so much music in the world. But underneath all that, there’s a solid groove.”