Discussing his new quartet's recent run at the Sweet Basil jazz club in New York City's Greenwich Village, saxophonist Kenny Garrett is clearly excited. "That was a big party up there!" he shouts. "Some nights we were playing till three or four o'clock in the morning. Not that we had to, it was just that we were having so much fun. The last night I don't think I got home until five o'clock."
Musicians aren't paid overtime, so shouldn't Garrett be jaded by this stuff by now? After twenty years performing in the public eye, five of them alongside none other than Miles Davis, hasn't he pretty much seen all there is to see, done all there is to do? Not yet. As much as Garrett is a student of jazz, he also prides himself in tapping into the dynamics of the live music experience. Go to a Garrett show and you won't see the musical gymnastics and avant-garde navel gazing that some of his jazz contemporaries bring to the stage. Sure he wants to extend the music and bring it to new places, but he's also very conscious of what the audience wants. Instead of attempting to cram something new and different down their throats, he takes a more subtle, spoonful-of-sugar approach, sliding the bold and foreign elements into the otherwise familiar and approachable. He's careful not to intimidate a crowd but at the same time is unwilling to compromise his musical vision.
"I see how people react," he says during a phone call from his New Jersey home. "I can feel them pulling back or I can see that they're enjoying themselves. I'm trying to educate them in one sense, and at the same time let them have fun. I think I've gotten to a point where I've found that happy medium."
Garrett began preparing for his bandstand balancing act when he was shorter than the alto saxophone that's made him famous. Growing up in Detroit, he listened to his father play sax around the house; young Kenny gyrated around with a toy version of Dad's instrument. By age ten he had a real horn of his own. It was secondhand and sported a plugged-up bullet hole courtesy of a previous owner, but it was good enough for band class.
After a few years of music school and of deepening the grooves of his father's Charlie Parker and John Coltrane records, Garrett was set to head for college. His plans changed when he received an invitation to join the Duke Ellington Orchestra, which was led at the time by Duke's son Mercer. Garrett spent three and a half years touring and recording with the group before he moved to New York, the center of the jazz universe. There he recorded with a string of musical heavyweights, including Mel Lewis, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, and long-time Charles Mingus drummer Dannie Richmond. Garrett also scored a spot in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, at the time the most coveted apprenticeship a young up-and-comer could hope for.
Impressive stints indeed, especially for someone barely old enough to buy a drink at the clubs he was playing. But the dream gig of all dream gigs came Garrett's way in 1983 when Miles Davis hired him. Suddenly Garrett found himself playing on a daily basis with the most famous jazz musician on the planet. While he grasped the significance of stepping into a sideman position once occupied by Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, he was too concerned with getting the music straight to dwell on his place in history. "Of course I was aware that great saxophone players had played in Miles's band, but all I was trying to do at that point was play the best I could." And while encounters with greatness tend to be as disillusioning as they are exhilarating, he still carries the lessons from his five years with Davis. "Miles was the only bandleader who gave me opportunities to play longer than two choruses. Most bandleaders, you get two or three and then you're out of there. Miles gave me this platform: 'Okay, you can go ahead and play.' I got a chance to stretch."
Garrett's musical stretching with Davis brought him popular and critical acclaim and helped launch his first two major-label solo albums: Prisoner of Love in 1989, on which Davis made a guest appearance, and 1990's African Exchange Student. When Davis died in 1991, he left behind a string of musicians whose brilliant careers he helped nurture: Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, and Herbie Hancock, to name just a few. As the Nineties draw to a close, Garrett has proved that he deserves his place in that exclusive fraternity.
The past three years have brought particularly sweet success. In 1996 Garrett released Pursuance: The Music of John Coltrane, a remarkable collection of ten covers and one Coltrane-esque original. Garrett's serious, almost prayerful pose on the album jacket makes it clear from the get-go that this is sacred ground. He considered inviting McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones, the two surviving members of Coltrane's famous quartet, to play on the project. "I was thinking, 'Do you want to go back and get the guys who played that music, or do you want to put a fresher spin on it?'"
He opted for the fresher spin; he approached Coltrane from an entirely new perspective by bringing in Pat Metheny on guitar. Garrett had never played with a guitarist before the Pursuance sessions, let alone recorded with one, but his interplay with Metheny lifted the music to soaring heights. Garrett frames the songs differently than Coltrane did, but he somehow retains every bit of the power and emotion the master breathed into them. And that's no small feat.
Interestingly, the true gems on Pursuance are some of the less frequently heard songs in the Coltrane catalogue, such as "Lonnie's Lament" and "After the Rain." In choosing numbers that were less famous than standards like "My Favorite Things" or "Blue Train," Garrett was following his primary purpose in recording the album: to bring more attention to Coltrane's music. "I didn't think that whatever I did to the music was gonna really change anything. Even though I tried to put my little interpretation on it, the main objective was for people to go back and check out the source."
Calling one of the landmark jazz albums of the decade his "little interpretation" is typical of Garrett's modest and cheerful personality. But fans and critics alike recognized Pursuance as something far more momentous than a pointer to the Coltrane section at music store. In 1997 the ultradiscriminating readers of Down Beat named Pursuance jazz album of the year in the annual readers' poll. They also voted Garrett alto saxophonist of the year, just as they had in 1996 and now again in 1998.
Garrett followed Pursuance with Songbook, an album of originals that was greeted with similar praise. He is now preparing material for a new solo project but has been busy over the past few months chipping in as a sideman on other artists' projects, including releases from drummer Roy Haynes, vibes player Bobby Hutcherson, and pianist Herbie Hancock (who has a George Gershwin tribute album in the works). But no matter who he's playing with or where he's doing it, Garrett remains as much a listener as a performer. "Miles taught me to be open-minded about music, and to always try to learn from anybody who plays. Beginners, advanced -- you can learn something from everybody."
As usual, he is now on the road and in the clubs, spreading the Garrett gospel with an open ear. After all those sets in front of all those faces, he still gets a thrill out of converting the reluctant listeners, the ones who walk in with sour looks on their faces, but who wind up dancing on their chairs by the end of the night. "I feel that we're educating them. We're saying, 'Okay, this is the real thing. This is what it's really about.'"
Kenny Garrett performs at 9:00 p.m. Saturday, November 14, at Young Circle, Hollywood Boulevard and U.S. 1, during the Hollywood Jazz Festival, which continues on Sunday. Tickets are $10 each day. Call 954-779-3032 for more information and a complete lineup.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.