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Kenny Kirkland ObituaryCopyright © 1999The Scotsman, 1998
Kirkland, KennyThe jazz pianist and composer Kenny Kirkland was been found dead at his apartment in Queen's, New York. He was born Kenneth David Kirkland in Brooklyn, New York, on 28 September, 1955 (although some sources give the date as 1957), and took up piano at the age of six. He studied classical piano and theory at Manhatten School of Music, developing an impressively refined technical prowess in the process, and began working on the New York jazz scene after recovering from career-threatening injuries sustained in a car accident shortly before he graduated.
His early associations include playing electric keyboards in a jazz-fusion style with violinist Michael Urbaniak in 1977, and subsequently with bass player Miroslav Vituous, trumpeter Terumasa Hino, and drummers Don Alias and Elvin Jones, but he broke through to more widespread attention during his tenure with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.
Kirkland held the piano chair in Marsalis's band from 1981-85, at a crucial point in the trumpeter's emergence as a key figure on the contemporary jazz scene. The pianist's time with Marsalis included contributions to some of his most important and influential recordings, including Think Of One (1983) and Black Codes (From The Underground) (1985).
The pianist was an impressively sensitive accompanist as well as an imaginative soloist, and his Herbie Hancock-influenced approach proved a perfect foil for the trumpeter's updating of the bop tradition at that point, in which the Miles Davis Quintet of the mid-Sixties, which featured Hancock, served as a particular reference point.
In 1985, to Wynton's widely reported chagrin, Kirkland and his brother, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, joined Sting, the former lead singer with The Police, for his debut album as a solo artist, Dream of The Blue Turtles, and a subsequent world tour which was captured in a documentary film. Kirkland returned to New York as a freelance musician, and worked with Branford in the saxophonist's own band, including the albums Royal Garden Blues (1986), Renaissance (1987), Random Abstract (1988) and Crazy People Music (1990), as well as a further album with Sting, The Soul Cages (1991).
When the saxophonist was offered a lucrative post as leader of the studio band for television's Tonight Show in Los Angeles, he took Kirkland with him, but the pianist did not settle on the West Coast, and returned to New York when Marsalis eventually quit the job, where he continued to be much in demand as a sideman, working with a widely assorted range of leaders, and in a variety of styles, including Cuban and Latin projects.
That was a role which seemed to suit him very well throughout his career. Unusually at a time when anyone associated with the Marsalis clan was assiduously courted by record companies, he made only one disc under his own name, an eponymous 1991 release on GRP. He contributed to a great many records with other leaders, however, including the English saxophonist Courtney Pine and a recent acclaimed association with saxophonist Kenny Garrett, and left an extensive and very highly regarded discography in that context.