‘Real Kenny G’ rides into town on melody

By Calvin Wilson
October 18, 2009

As the Sonny Rollins concert last month demonstrated, jazz still has cultural significance. Indeed, the saxophonist put on an energetic, imaginative show for more than 1,500 fans at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center.

But the performance, presented by Jazz St. Louis, raised a question: Just how popular is jazz these days? Not “smooth jazz,” but the kind that made Rollins and his peers such as John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis timeless icons?

Unfortunately, even the most enthusiastic fans of jazz legends don’t necessarily keep up with what’s happening on the contemporary scene. But saxophonist Kenny Garrett, who begins a four-night engagement at Jazz at the Bistro on Wednesday, definitely deserves to be heard.

“Melody — that’s the most important thing,” Garrett, 49, said recently by phone. “Something that people can remember. Because if they can’t remember, then it’s like, ‘I know he was playing something, but I’m not sure what the melody was.’ When I hear that, I have a problem myself.”

Garrett, who has often been referred to as “the real Kenny G,” composes and performs music that’s rooted in the jazz tradition but incorporates an impressive range of influences, from funk to Asian sounds. His latest album is “Sketches of MD: Live at the Iridium” (Mack Avenue).

At the Bistro, he’ll front a quartet featuring organ, bass and drums.

“I chose the organ because I was trying to go back to my roots in Detroit,” Garrett said. “I write tunes on the piano, and the sound of the organ just happens to be there.”

As a bandleader, Garrett learned from the best. In the 1980s, he became a sideman to Miles Davis, taking his place in an impressive line of saxophonists that included Rollins, Coltrane, Hank Mobley, George Coleman, Sam Rivers and Wayne Shorter.

“With Miles, I learned to do what it is that I feel is important in the music,” Garrett said. “I always used to play a lot of standard tunes, but he said, ‘Write your own tunes.'”

Garrett earned critical kudos for a string of albums on the Atlantic and Warner Bros. labels, among them “African Exchange Student” (1990), “Black Hope” (1992), “Pursuance: The Music of John Coltrane” (1996), “Songbook” (1997) and “Standard of Language” (2003). All About Jazz, an online magazine, hailed Garrett’s 2006 disc “Beyond the Wall” (Nonesuch) as “an equitable blend of Eastern meditation and impressive hard bop swing.”

Among Garrett’s strengths is his interest in exploring uncharted musical territory.

“Every night, Miles was always reaching for the music,” Garrett said.

“I just figured, I couldn’t be Miles, I could only be Kenny, 24/7. So that’s what I decided to do: be myself.”

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