Kenny G is all right with me.

19 Nov

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Who’s ever indulged in poking a little fun at Kenny G?  Perhaps without ever having even listened to an entire Kenny G song?  I confess, I’ve done it. Are you one of the 19 million + who Sexy Saxman Sergio Flores cracked  up with his clever  Carless Whispers caper a couple of years back?  Then you’re guilty too.

Truth be told, Kenny G related snickers have been a peripheral and occasional accent in the soundtrack of my life as a musician and human all the way back to the 80s; up close and distant, sax players, jazz people, punk rockers, hipsters and anybody considering him or herself erudite and related whatsoever to my social sphere and aesthetic realm may have been likely to have made a Kenny quip at one time or another.  It’s understood; we all know Kenny G is a figure of fun, whether it be on account of the smoothness of his version of that thing called jazz on that soprano saxophone, his iconic hair or some loosely based in fact idea that he owns Starbucks.  Other than that I’ve never paid him much mind.  It was hardly surprising to me when I sent my mother a copy of my experimental “saxtronica” CD Secret Life Of Secretary that her 2 comments were “I can’t really follow it” and “You know who I like?  Kenny G”.

I wasn’t mad at her.  After all, my mother is an older lady and Kenny G makes old lady music, right?  Or does he?  Were the millions of people who watched this video of his song “The Moment”, which I just listened to for the first time all old ladies?   I doubt it.

But lately Kenny G as a cultural figure and character in life stepped out of the sidelines of my mind and demanded a little more attention.  I was recently (uncharacteristically) watching a video of a master class given by a renowned saxophone player  greatly respected in the jazz world, and Kenny G was mentioned in some context which I don’t quite remember.  I was struck by the collective reaction of the attendees, in a far off land, who snickered in perfect unison. I started to think about the strong effect Kenny G has had on people all over the world since the release of his fourth album “Duotones” in 1986.

Then after a gig on Bleecker Street last weekend I was walking with my section mate MK to the subway and we passed the Blue Note and I noticed Kenny G was playing four nights.  Suddenly I wanted to go.  I asked him if he wanted to but it wasn’t a good week for him.  Then I asked my trombone blowing buddy Smoota to be my date and he was excited.  A couple of phone calls and emails later we were on the press list (which means I have a little writing to do about Kenny G in addition to this blog post).  Imagine my heart attack when the PR manager from The Blue Note asked me if I’d like him to set up an interview.  !!!!!!!  There are a couple of magazines I write for which will run my story on Kenny G next year, but if an interview was afoot I wanted to be able to assure Kenny’s people there would be something published to a wide audience in the immediate future.  I pitched the idea to those where I had contacts and was met with a resounding … er, that’s not really our thing.  Snobs everywhere!

Nevertheless I diligently began to research the life and music of Kenny G and learned a lot.  To me the most mindblowing fact I came across is that in China his recording “Going Home” is often played at closing time at public places or at the end of classes at schools. Mass transit systems in Tianjin and Shanghai play these songs when trains approach terminus stations.  Like, a guy wrote and recorded a song and it replaced the bell at the end of the school day.  That pushes it out of the realm of music and into the realm of symbols!

I listened to a bunch of Kenny G songs and even learned how to play one on bari sax (you may hear me sneaking it in to a future live set).  I was amazed at the simplicity of the songwriting and considered that this is part of Kenny G’s genius.  Because I’ve already acknowledged that Kenny is a genius.

As I eagerly awaited news of the possibility of an interview, showtime approached.  By the time Smoota and I got dressed up in our smoothest attire and headed down to the village to dig some (smooth) jazz last Thursday night, Kenny’s people had said with 8 shows in four nights, Kenny’s time was too limited for an in person interview but he may be able to squeeze in a phone interview over the weekend.

The Blue Note was full, but not uncomfortably packed.  We had great seats.  For those of you who haven’t been there, it’s an intimate supper club style venue which seats a few hundred guests width-wise to the stage so nobody is very far back.

Suddenly Kenny was coming down the stairs.  “There he is!”  I said. He was so close.  He walked right by us to a place in the back of the club as his band took their positions on the stage , his bass player carrying a tenor sax down and putting it on the piano,and then the concert began.  A crazy synth swell and an unearthly long tone from that soprano sax … and then, famously, the long note was held minute after minute as Kenny walked through the club, holding the note, posing for pictures with audience members, putting his horn right up to my ear (at which juncture I heard the pure tone, separate from the strange effect engineered back there by his sound man Monty, and it sounded great); he shook Smoota’s hand on what was probably the fourth minute of the note.  Took a plate of food off a waiter’s tray and put it down on the table in front of the hungry customer.  Putting a smile on every face and a round of applause in every pair of hands.  Suddenly everyone was having fun, but in a very contained well behaved way.

And then Kenny talked.  He talked about the show, about being thrilled to play the Blue Note, about his band all of whom have been with him for more than 20 years (except the drummer who’s only been with him 8) and about his sound guy Monty.  He talked about his Christmas albums and about how he’d been edged out of the pre-Christmas dates at The Blue Note by Chris Botti.  (I didn’t know who it was, Smoota explained later when we spent hours at Cafe Reggio discussing the show and talking about ideas).

By the time the band launched into the first song, Kenny had me.  I was having a great time.  One thing I was aware of, I was so comfortable.  Nothing about the music was jarring or too loud.  While in this review I can mostly not tell you which numbers were performed, since I’m a neophyte to Kenny G’s music, the sound was familiar.  After all, it’s been around me for years in elevators, airports, waiting rooms … all kinds of places where I’m supposed to relax.  But I never found it so relaxing as sitting right in front of the man in The Blue Note, experiencing the music live.

The set was well paced and Kenny talked a lot.  He pointed out his best friend in the audience, told us that last Christmas was a very difficult time for him since his wife had asked him for a divorce and joked that it was more than he had wanted to spend.  There were many jokes,  3 of them about (his) gayness (“just kidding, that’s not what the G stands for”) and one  about penis size, when he switched to tenor … “I know you all really came to see my big one … my best friend’s already seen it, because he’s my best friend … just kidding, that’s not what the G stands for”).  Kenny sounded great on tenor and I was surprised he’s not better known for it.  He included one of his Christmas songs on tenor “even though it’s illegal because it’s before Thanksgiving”.

His band all looked incredibly well-fed, relaxed and contented, like cats.  He introduced his keyboard player Robert Damper as his best friend from Franklin High School and rejoiced that they’d played hundreds of shows together, been around the world a gazillion times playing music and even played at The White House for then President Clinton and a selection of governors, and got to spend the night in the Lincoln Bedroom.  He introduced the band as the night went on, gave them all solo action.

The feeling onstage amongst the band was to me the greatest part of the concert and the aspect to which I could most strongly relate.  A bunch of friends in the act of jamming together onstage, as is their custom.  I’m lucky enough to have it in my life and I treasure it.  I do it every week, usually several times a week.  And watching Kenny G and his band show up for their gig together go through their second set of the night, doing what they do was as real, awesome and valid as any concert I’ve ever seen.  They were all perfectly seasoned and capable musicians, all guys who’ve been playing for decades, giving it their all, trying to make people feel good and succeeding.

I realized Kenny G is a committed musician who loses himself totally in the moment(s) when he puts his saxophone to his lips and blows.  He’s a joyous soloist and people catch his joy.  He found a way of fitting into the tapestry that is the history of music and millions of people dig it.  He invented a sound that was strange and offensive to a lot of people; they said he wasn’t doing it right.  Maybe he doesn’t give a shit about the rules.  I don’t know, since I never did get my phone interview over the weekend so couldn’t ask him about that.  But I did, along with dozens of his ecstatic fans get to shake his hand before leaving the club and try out the Kenny G E Series Soprano Sax which he played during his set and which he was selling for $1500, the proceeds of which were going to be entirely gifted to the wait staff at The Blue Note.  I really wanted it, but it would have been an irresponsible purchase and I sounded terrible on it. I asked him if it came in other flavors, tenor, alto, baritone and right at that moment, up until which he’d been open, eye contacting, hand shaking and warm, he froze over.  I don’t do it in baritone he said, and I was dismissed, handed over to Monty, the man behind the live sound (what was he doing up in that mixing booth anyway — pedals?).  “I’ve been doing it since 1989”, Monty told me.

I guess I’ll never know why Kenny G suddenly froze me out …. maybe he suspected me of not being a true fan or friend.  That was the feeling.

The fact of the matter is I was impressed on many levels and there’s one song, I don’t know what it is, that I can’t get  out of my head.  It doesn’t matter which song.  It’s smooth and the voice is unmistakable and unique. It’s Kenny G, my mother’s favorite saxophone player.

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