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A Tale of Two Kenny Gs

Kenny G and Kenny Garrett
No, Kenny G and Kenny Garrett are not actually sharing the stage.

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One is a chart-topping juggernaut who has sparked musical controversy for the last 35 years. The other is a master who’s spent that same span of time balancing improvisational fire with lyrical soul. Yes, in both instances we’re talking about saxophonist Kenny G — Gorelick in the first case, and Garrett in the second. As you can imagine, we have some thoughts.

Listening to Kenny G, the new HBO Max documentary by Penny Lane, pulls back the curtain on a soprano saxophonist who has managed a 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 room into such fields as cooking and golf. For Gorelick, music itself is almost sport. His knack for creating the simplest, most sellable melodies set the formula for smooth jazz in the late 1980s and ‘90s. His music — a soothing soundtrack for some, and a needling provocation to others — becomes a kind of Rorschach test, a reason to consider the limits and delineations of taste. About his latest album, New Standards, perhaps the less said the better (though we had to say something).

Alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett, on the other hand, has long reconciled a forthright melodic sensitivity with endless reserves of incendiary power. In his youth, he made a strong impression in bands led by Miles Davis, Art Blakey and many others. He then went on to a prolific career as a bandleader and composer; “Sing a Song of Song,” from 1997, is arguably one of the last jazz compositions to become an actual new standard.

A few of the tunes on Garrett’s 2021 album, Sounds From the Ancestors, would also seem to hold that potential. One in particular, “Hargrove,” infectiously carries forward the pithy bounce of its namesake, the late trumpeter Roy Hargrove, who came 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.

This I Dig:

Jazz United is produced for WBGO Studios by Trevor Smith.

Greg Bryant has been a longtime curator of improvisational music. At the age of 3 in his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, he was borrowing his father’s records and spinning them on his Fisher Price turntable. Taking in diverse sounds of artistry from Miles Davis, Les McCann, James Brown, Weather Report and Jimi Hendrix gave shape to Greg's musical foundation and started him on a path of nonstop exploration.
A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, Nate Chinen is editorial director at WBGO and a regular contributor to NPR Music.