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Ghost Canyon

Kenny Garrett Kenny Garrett
’Will The REAL Kenny G Please Stand Up?!’

Kenny Garrett was one of the last significant graduates of Miles Davis' groups and is one of the potential greats in jazz. He started early on playing in Detroit with Marcus Belgrave and toured with the Mercer Ellington Orchestra before moving to New York in 1980. He made his debut recording for Criss Cross (1984) and was part of the group Out of the Blue before joining Davis for the trumpeter's last few years. Garrett recorded an obscure session for Paddlewheel (1988), the weak Prisoner of Love (1989), and the recommended African Exchange Student (1990) as a leader for Atlantic. Since Miles Davis' death, Garrett has led his own groups and recorded eight albums (including the brand new Standard of Language) for Warner Bros., justifying Davis' faith in him.

Chatting with Kenny at his home in New Jersey, with the weather at a comfortable 60 degrees, I first wondered – having grown up in Detroit – what his musical memories of the ‘D’ were? ”I have very fond memories of Detroit. When I grew up in Detroit it was always a mixture of music. I remember hearing different styles of music and I didn’t really realize just how great the musicians were until I left. But, I got a lot of playing time in Detroit and met a lot of good people there. So, yeah it was great for me.”

Would you be where you are today without having been pushed by the late, great Miles Davis? ”I think I would still have succeeded, but it probably would have taken a little longer. I was destined to play with other musicians and sometimes it’s a dream and sometimes it’s just destiny, you know. I mean, some musicians that I played with I didn’t think that I would ever play with, but once you get to New York and you start to dream a bit, anything can happen.”

You’ve worked with Dizzy, Donald Byrd, Freddie Hubbard, but – aside from Miles – who has been the more musically compatible to your personal style? ”Well, I wouldn’t say ‘compatible,’ but I would say that Jazz has been more challenging to me. I’ve played funk and I’ve played kinda Hip-Hop and stuff, but Jazz is definitely more challenging. It’s more challenging in the aspect that it’s something that you strive for and when you finally get to a point where you know what the music is all about, then there’s another perspective that you look to the music from. Basically, when I started to understand the language and the foundation of music, then I started to think well that’s fine, because one of my teachers, Miles Davis was always talking about starting over. It’s almost like you go from ‘A-Z’ and then you’re back to ‘A’ and from ‘A‘ there’s new discoveries, you know. And so, when I got to ‘Z,’ I had to start over and try it again and then the second time things that you learnt from ‘A-Z’ you bring those back and you have a new perspective for them. It’s harder sometimes to view, to create on the spot all the time. With some of the easier music, certain chords can be a little less challenging, but for me Jazz is always challenging and when you get to that point you can either stay there or you can move ahead and try something different.”

So just how do you keep your music ‘fresh,’ especially as there are no lyrics? ”Well, to me as always, I haven’t gotten to the album that I think is the ‘ultimate’ album. When I think of records like Love Supreme or any Marvin Gaye record, an ‘ultimate’ album has any tune that has a spiritual quality to it and maybe at that point I’ll start reaching. But, now every record I try to challenge myself for something different. Doing a record like Happy People and then doing a record like Standard of Language what you are doing is creating a different journey on each album. The purpose is different, so an album like Happy People was all about live and production, BUT Standard of Language was really just about live. We tried to play a bit more, to stretch a bit more, to try and turn the music upside down, but it depends on what the purpose is; what the premise is, for doing the CD.”

Why decide to use five of the songs left over from the Happy People sessions? ”Well, when we did the Happy People sessions we had four days ‘cause of 9/11 and we recorded 18 songs. And so out of those 18 songs, 11 of the songs went on Happy People and I had those in mind that I didn’t want to put on the CD for the continuity of the CD. Then we had five songs that were left over that were very strong and could have actually have gone on Happy People, but then I got the idea that these were such strong tunes that they were actually going off in their own direction. So, I decided to go back into the studio and record four more songs and so to me, those five tunes that were already left over already had a direction. People are always asking when am I gonna do a live CD, so we decided to try and get some of that energy on Standard of language.”

Why re-cover Cole Porter’s ’What Is This Thing Called Love,’ when you had previously recorded with both Brian Blade and Kiyoshi Kitagawa for the Trilogy album in 1995? ”Well, basically what happened was that I re-harmonized the melody and now it’s actually kinda taken from Coltrane’s type of progressions even though you don’t hear any of the same context. Because when you hear the tune and we’re stretching, you can hear the sound, but there’s a lot of harmonies going on in there. And, we had been playing this song live, and the musicians said, ‘Well, since we’re playing it why don’t we document it, because this is very difficult?’ So, that’s how it came about as it was something that we needed to document since we had been playing it.”

Your song titles are very eclectic – some being from Japan such as ‘Gendai’ and ’Kurita Sensei’ – so why go to so much extra measures to do that and what’s your fascination with Japan anyway?! ”Well, the first time I went to Japan in ’79, I remember being pretty shy at the time as I had just come out of High School, but I got to Japan and I actually found some people shyer than I was,” he laughs. ”So, that kinda brought me out of my shell. Then, one time I was going to Europe and I overheard some people talk about Americans being lazy. So, not wanting to be a ‘lazy American,’ I actually tried to see if I could learn a new language and it just happened that I was going to Japan. So, from there I just kinda got in the culture through the language and through the language I got into the music. I started learning all these folk songs and I started to find out that a lot of the songs John Lennon wrote were kinda influenced by this culture. I definitely hear, when I listen to John Lennon songs, I hear Japanese folk songs, but of course he was married to Yoko Ono so I can see where that connection could be from too. So, about three or four years ago I decided to go to Japan and study in a language school for two weeks and we had class from 9-12.30 and every day we had a quiz or a test. I remember that I had an audition and I spoke to people from New Jersey to find out what level I was at, and they wanted me to be in the Advanced Class. But, I didn’t want to be in the Advanced Class, because I was only happy having conversations. So, I thought that my balance of writing and speaking would be on the same levels as speaking, so I decided on taking another type of class, and her name was Kurita Sensei. And she loved the way that I spoke Japanese because it was passionate so she always wanted me to speak in class. So, no matter what the question was she was always choosing me,” he laughs. ”It was amazing that I had to speak this much, because I had never studied in a formal city.”

Is that where the one tune ‘Kurita Sensei’ derives from? ”I was actually in a car driving around Japan and I heard this melody and I said, ‘Wow, that sounds like Kurita Sensei.' You know, it had discipline, but at the same time was kinda fun and so I wrote this tune for her basically for motivating me to study the language.”

And the tune ’Gendai’? ”The other tune, ‘Gendai,’ which means ‘present tense,’ I was thinking about this movie called ‘Blade Runner.’ I wanted to write a song that would kinda reflect what I remember from that film. But, basically, it was one of those situations where I’ve always had a love for that culture and the people there have always treated me very respectively.”

Does your sax have a name?! ”No, I’ve never named my saxophone,” he laughs. ”I just use it as a vehicle to express myself. So, I haven’t come up with name, no.”

In the business, do you yourself have a ‘nickname’ of sorts?! ”Erm,” he laughs, ”Well, there is a nickname, like a funny name. They call me the ‘Real Kenny G.’’ he laughs again. "I mean, it’s not really my nickname, but some people and my fans, they’re the ones that have kinda started that.”

Do you have to be in a certain frame of mind, or place to get inspired to compose? ”It pretty much strikes me at any time. I could be watching a movie and hear a chord, then go to the piano and start molding the song. Music is everywhere for and so I don’t really have to be inspired, per-say, but I could just hear a chord and go back in my studio today and record the CD.”

Is there a message to come from this new album, Standard of Language? ”Well, basically for me, the forefathers of the music set a standard and what I was trying to do was set a standard for Kenny Garrett and his band to try and reach. Because when I grew up listening to music it always had this spiritual quality about it and I just tried to keep it on that level. As much as I can, because music is changing ever day and some people didn’t grow up hearing what I heard so their experiences are not gonna be the same as my experiences. So, what I heard I just tried to recapture, but still with the experiences I gained from Miles and Freddy. I tried to come up with some music that people would be proud of, but at the same time it was always my interpretation of the music.”

I was wondering if a pristine copy of your first album as a leader, Introducing Kenny Garrett (1984) would be worth any money these days?! ”Well, I have it,” he laughs. ”I have it on CD too, but I also have the original, yeah, but I’m not too sure just how rare it actually is,” he laughs again.

Reveal something about Kenny Garrett (away from music) that most people wouldn’t know ”Well, he believes people are 'one.' I think a lot of times people philosophically say that we are 'one,' but I think that the fact we are all 'one' is becoming a reality. People basically want the same thing and I think the main thing that people want is love. And if you go around the world you’ll find the people all want the same thing. And I think that’s what people don’t know about Kenny Garrett is that it reflects in the music that he’s about 'one' even though people don’t think about it that way.”

Reveal a secret about Kenny Garrett! ”Well, I like Eastern food,” he laughs loudly. ”I don’t think a lot of people would know that. Most times when I’m eating food it’s mostly Asian like some rice and vegetables or something like that. It’s definitely Asian-style! I also used to hide my favorite records till Christmas time and then I’d just pull them out and play them and that just filled me up. And that’s how I’d like people to feel after they’ve listened to my CD – all filled up with music. Something that they can hold onto and something that can leave also with.”

Any pre-stage routines? ”I make sure that I’m mentally, spiritually and physically in the right place at that time. But, what I mean by that I kinda look at myself sometimes as an athlete and so when we’re not working we have to condition our bodies to be able to play every night. I like to work out and so that kinda prepares me mentally and physically and there’s other things that I do, but those things get me in place to deal with the music on a regular basis when I’m traveling.”

Any new projects floating around yet? ”Right now I’m checking out a lot of different music, a lot of different cultures and trying to see what direction will be challenging for me. I’ve been listening to everything from Hip-Hop to rock music, to Japanese music to classical music just trying to figure out what I haven’t done that I need to do. I kinda feel that it’s very important to try and start trying to document myself as much as possible and I think that’s probably why these records are coming out back to back. Because it’s important as you just don’t know how long you’re here. So, I’m searching and trying to find something that’s a little different that’s another presentation of Kenny Garrett.”

What new genre of music are you listening to these days? ”Well, in Hip-Hop I’m listening to 50 Cent and R.Kelly. I can hear a lot of influences in his music from like Stevie and Marvin Gaye and I thought that was interesting. As far as the rock music, I’m not too sure who the people are, but there’s this guy who works in the Chicken Shack just up the street and we listen to stuff and I just tell him if I like that style and he’ll make me some more CDs. A lot of time I find that the music that I listen to is not music that I would actually go out and buy. I like meeting people who would expose me to music that I wouldn’t normally be exposed to as there’s no way possible way I could be exposed to, and listen to everything.”

Your music has been described as 'total euphoria,’ and ‘bold strokes of genius,’ but does that sit well with you? ”I don’t really pay it any mind. I just do what I do and I just hope some of the people – ‘cause not everybody can get into what I’m trying to do – can relate to it. You know, everybody has their different interpretations of Kenny Garrett and only Kenny Garrett knows who Kenny Garrett is! So, I try not to get caught up to it.”

Do you have your own description of what you see your music as? ”I thing it’s kinda ‘World Music,’ but I don’t know if you can call ‘World Music.’ But, like I said before when I was talking about ‘one,’ I think lately – of course, it’s been heavily Japanese influenced - I’ve had this affinity for the Asian culture and so it’s coming out more now. But, I just thing that everything all connects as ‘one’.”

Finally, describe yourself in the first three words that come to mind! (It’s right about now that Kenny breaks down into a small bout of prolonged laughter!) ”Quiet, loving, and scitzo," he laughs boldly once more.
Interviewed by Russell A. Trunk

To win a copy of Kenny's brand new CD, Standard Of Language just answer Kenny's very own question: "What is my favorite place to play in the States?" (CLUE - Check out Kenny's web site!)

Just send an e:mail to me with the subject title 'KENNYG' and your answer in the text to:

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