The Real Kenny G
by Mark Ruffin
Is Kenny G the best saxophone player alive?… No, not that guy. But, the man who many jazz musicians call “the real Kenny G;” Kenny Garrett.
“That has been an inside joke in the jazz community for a long time,” recalled Garrett in a phone conversation from his east coast flat. “When Kenny G first hit really big people actually thought that I had changed my name. Then people just started calling me the real Kenny G.
“People say that to me all the time,” he continued laughing. “And it’s not just African-Americans but all kinds of folks have called me the real Kenny G.”
One of the most well liked musicians in jazz, not to mentioned one of the most respected, Garrett is too humble and self-effacing to admit it, but he blows rings around the White golden-haired, million selling artist who shares his name. Despite the fact that his twelve albums have sold considerably less than the other Kenny G, his unrelenting energetic style and adaptation to different genres has arguably made him the most influential alto saxophone player since Cannonball Adderley’s heyday in the 60’s.
“I listen to all kinds of music,” said the Detroit native, who celebrated his 43rd birthday October 9th. . “My last few records have been basically been a synopsis of what my band does live, and that is mixing a lot of genres.
“On my show, we play straight-ahead jazz, we play funk, we play a little hip-hop. We play a little of everything. Basically, when I’m doing music, I playing what I like.”
Garrett will go down in jazz history as the last saxophone player employed by Miles Davis before the great trumpeter passed away in 1991. During his five-year stint with Davis, Garrett recorded on four of his albums, including the top-seller, Amandla.
Like Davis, Garrett seems to absorb all types of music before distilling it into something completely original. Also, as with Davis, the young sax star’s open-mindedness has earned him admiration from many musicians outside of jazz. He has more than 100 credits as a sideman with acts ranging from Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers to Sting and A Tribe Called Quest, from Dizzy Gillespie to Guru, Peter Gabriel and Bruce Springsteen.
Even members of his current band are genre benders. Pianist Vernell Brown Jr. came to prominence in smooth jazz after being signed to a record contract by Herb Alpert as a teenager in the late 80’s. And Chris Dave, the drummer, last gig was dropping beats for hip-hop guru Dr. Dre.
Garrett credits his apprenticeship with Davis as key to becoming a good bandleader himself.
“Miles genius was getting the best out of musicians without controlling them,” Garrett commented. “By letting them be free, he managed to get the music he wanted from them.”
Garrett is celebrating his eleventh year as a jazz musician signed to Warner Brothers, a feat to be feted itself. His most recent record, his eighth album for the multi-national conglomerate, is titled Standard of Language.
The album is a no holds barred straight ahead be-bop romp that is not for the faint of heart quasi-jazz fan. Standard of Language is quite unlike his 2002 release, Happy People that was produced by Marcus Miller, and had more of a commercially accessible fusion and world music mix to it.
The record before that one, 1999’s Simply Stated, even garnered smooth jazz airplay across the country.
“The thing that most jazz people want to hear from Kenny Garrett is what is on Standard of Language,” he said. “Then there are the people that are open minded and I try to grab them and say, ‘hey, I like this kind of music too.’
“I do music that I like. When I did Happy People, that’s what I was hearing. Happy People was more about the melodies and trying to get a live production feel, while Standard of Language is about the playing and the improvisation. Every record has its reason.
“I just write music,” Garrett continued. “Even with the success of Simply Stated, getting play on the smooth jazz stations, it opened a door, but I didn’t make that album for that reason. Some (radio programmer) just liked the album and that was great, but I wasn’t trying to be a smooth jazz artist. I’m just trying to play music.”
And play he does.
He’ll never own up to being the best, but after winning a number of jazz polls and with the huge Warner Brothers hype machine behind him, he doesn’t have to declare it. There are already enough people who think he is the best saxophonist breathing, even over the circular breathing of the fake Kenny G.