A story of two Kenny Gs


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One is a chart-topping juggernaut that has sparked musical controversy over the past 35 years. The other is a master who has spent the same amount of time balancing the fire of improvisation with the lyrical soul. Yes, in both cases we are talking about saxophonist Kenny G – Gorelick in the first case and Garrett in the second. As you can imagine, we have some thoughts.

Listen to Kenny G, Penny Lane’s new HBO documentary Max draws the curtain on a soprano saxophonist who has achieved rare commercial ubiquity, with some 75 million records sold. In the film, Kenny G is revealed as a compulsive and diligent technician whose competitive streak extends beyond the practice hall into areas such as cooking and golf. For Gorelick, music itself is almost a sport. His talent for creating the simplest, most salable melodies established the formula for smooth jazz in the late 80s and 90s. His music – a calming soundtrack to some and a tangy provocation to others – becomes a kind of Rorschach test, a reason to consider the limits and delimitations of taste. About his last album, New standards, maybe the less we said the better (although we had to say Something).

Alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett, meanwhile, has long reconciled a frank melodic sensibility with endless reserves of incendiary power. As a youth, he made a strong impression in groups led by Miles Davis, Art Blakey and many others. He then pursued a prolific career as a conductor and composer; “Sing a Song of Song”, from 1997, is arguably one of the last jazz compositions to become a real new standard.

Some tracks from Garrett’s 2021 album, The sounds of ancestors, would also seem to hold this potential. One in particular, “Hargrove,” contagiously carries the twist of its namesake, the late trumpeter Roy Hargrove, who grew up in the same generation as Garrett. In performance and on record, Garrett has his audience in mind – not as a passive receptacle for his exhibitionism, but as a source of connection.

What I dig:

Jazz United is produced for WBGO Studios by Trevor Smith.

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