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Interviews

Kenny Garrett: Musical Explorer

By Published: September 11, 2006

I always felt that Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane and Miles Davis -- they all had music to go with their sound, and I wanted to have that, so I write my music.

Kenny GarrettAlto saxophonist and composer Kenny Garrett has released more than a dozen albums over a career spanning nearly three decades. His resume would make the average jazz fan weak in the knees: Freddy Hubbard, Woody Shaw, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, the Duke Ellington Band, the Mel Lewis Orchestra, and many others.

Garrett was born in Detroit in 1960. His musical travels have taken him around the world, and awakened in him a desire to learn more than just what can be found in the guidebooks. The most recent result of that inquisitiveness is Beyond The Wall, his new record for his new label, Nonesuch.

AAJ's Jason Crane spoke recently with Garrett about his life, his music, and his worldview.

Chapter Index

Growing Up
Joining the Duke Ellington Orchestra
Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw
Introducing Kenny Garrett
Miles Davis
Recording for Warner Bros.
A Busy Sideman
Beyond the Wall
The McCoy Tyner Connection
Expanding the Group


Growing Up

All About Jazz: You were given your first saxophone by your father. Was he a jazz player?

Kenny Garrett: My father kind of listened to everything. [When I was] growing up, he was listening to Stanley Turrentine. He was also listening to Joe Henderson. He played as a hobby. He was a carpenter by trade. So he played sporadically. Sometimes on the weekend he had gigs, and then most of the time from Monday through Friday he was working as a carpenter.

AAJ: Did he give you a saxophone because he had one laying around? Was he hoping you'd become a musician? Did you say "Hey Dad, I want a saxophone. I want to play what you're playing"?

KG: The funny thing about that is that I used to sit by his case because I loved the smell of the case. And I would just sit there and listen to him practice. And I remember one Christmas he got me a plastic saxophone. I'm not sure if they still sell those horns anymore. I just started messing around with that. Probably a few months later, or it might have been a year —you know, as a kid everything seems to take a long time anyway—he got me my first horn, which was an alto with a bullet hole that had been soldered. I don't know where he got the horn from, but I was happy to have a horn. He taught me the G scale and then he sent me off to music school to learn how to play. When your father's a musician it can be a little rough, so he sent me off to learn the basics.

AAJ: What kind of music school was it?

KG: It was called Fortune Music School. It was in Michigan. It wasn't a refined kind of music school. It was like a music store that had lessons.

AAJ: You're from Detroit, one of the great American music cities, so I've got to believe there was more than Turrentine and Henderson being listened to in the Garrett household when you were a kid.

KG: What I remember the most was my father listening to jazz and my mother listening to Motown sounds. I definitely remember Turrentine, Henderson and Maceo Parker. I remember those people.

AAJ: When you were studying at Fortune Music School, what were you studying?

KG: I was still just learning scales at that point. That was way in the beginning.

AAJ: Your press kit features the line, "In 1978, while still in his teens, Garrett joined the Duke Ellington Orchestra under the direction of Mercer Ellington." I was playing sax at 17, too, but Mercer never called me. What happened in between the music store and the Ellington band?

KG: After that particular school, I was just like every other student. I went to my lessons and I was trying to learn how to play. I didn't really play in elementary school, even though I had a horn. I didn't start playing until high school. I had a horn, but the places I went to school didn't really have bands for me to play in. When I got to MacKenzie High School, my teacher at that time, a guy named Bill Wiggins, knew my father and wanted me to join the band. They didn't really have a band, but he was trying to put together a band. Every time he'd see me with my horn, he'd ask me if I wanted to join the band. Between that band and [trumpeter and Detroit music legend] Marcus Belgrave, who was a pillar of the community, I think it really started to happen during that time.

So I ended up joining the high school band. We didn't really have a stage band or a concert band. They just chose people who had instruments or who they thought could play and they introduced them to these instruments. From that, I started to realize that I wanted to play music. Before that, I had a saxophone and carried it around to different schools and played in the band, but I wasn't really interested. In high school, I really got serious. Bill Wiggins had traveled the world, and he introduced me to a lot of music. He used to do shows with Aretha Franklin and [soul singer] Jerry Butler, and he'd invite me to come by and look at the book and see how that process was done. He played with [Hammond organist] Lyman Woodard, and he played in the Duke Ellington Orchestra directed by Mercer Ellington, and that's one of the ways I got in the band.

Back in high school, I used to play with Lyman Woodard. I used to do that in my senior year. That was a great experience—every weekend I had a gig with Lyman Woodard. I also played with Marcus Belgrave's big band and small group. He's responsible for [pianist] Geri Allen, [bassist] Bob Hurst, [bassist] Rodney Whitaker, [saxophonist] James Carter. Any of the guys who came out of Detroit, we all came through his tutelage. After I played in that band, I used to go around to other high schools like Cass Tech, which is one of the main schools in Detroit, and Northwest. They had good bands, and I used to try to sit in with their bands. After getting my experience in Detroit, the Duke Ellington Band directed by Mercer came through town, and they needed an alto player. Their alto player had disappeared. I was still in high school. Bill Wiggins was subbing in the band, and I think Marcus might have been subbing that night, and they needed someone, so they called me.

AAJ: It sounds like the connection with Bill Wiggins was pretty useful. It's incredible to think of what might have happened had you not met him.

KG: He had studied at Cass Tech, and he studied at the University of Michigan with players like Yusef Lateef and classical saxophone teacher Larry Teal. [Saxophonist] Don Sinta was one of Larry Teal's best students. All those guys from Michigan came through him. I wanted to study with him, but by the time I came along he was retired. A lot of the information that my teacher [Bill Wiggins] had gotten from Larry Teal he passed along to me. I used to play out of the book Twenty-Five Daily Exercises by Klose. He definitely introduced me to a different world. Like I said, we didn't really have a band, so he was like the band director and my private instructor. It was funny because in school he'd beat me up [about my playing], and then on the weekends I still had a lesson and he'd beat me up there. But it was great. He's since passed away. I wish he could have had the opportunity to see some of the things I've accomplished. He missed out on a lot of the things. But he was there for me.

Without him and Marcus Belgrave and so many different people—Bobby Barnes, Lamont Hamilton—so many people who give you little pieces of information. Being around Marcus allowed me to be exposed to some of the musicians I ended up playing with like Freddy Hubbard and the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band. These are some of the people I met when I was still in school. Marcus was exposed to all the great musicians coming through Detroit. Anytime somebody was there, he was there. So if I was in his band, I was there. I met a lot of musicians even before I had a chance to play with them. [Vocalese inventor] Eddie Jefferson. [Saxophonist] Richie Cole. They came through Michigan and I was playing in the [Belgrave] big band, so I got a chance to play with them. class="f-right s-img"> Return to Index...


Joining the Duke Ellington Orchestra

AAJ: Were you still in high school when you first got the call to go with Mercer's band?

KG: I had just graduated from high school. It was the summer. They wanted me to come and join the band, and I thought I was going to go out for a few gigs, but I ended up staying for three years and a half. It was a great experience. It was important—I won't say the most important, but it was very important for me to learn how to play with 18 musicians. I had opportunities to travel with that band. It was my first time going to Europe—we went to Luxembourg. And I actually met [trumpeter] Cootie Williams. He came out of retirement, and I got an opportunity to play with Cootie. I would be sitting at the piano playing standards and Cootie would say, "Cookie, baby, what are you doing playing those songs? Write your own songs." It was good to be around Cootie, and people like Dave Young, who took the chair of [saxophonist] Paul Gonsalves. I didn't realize that at the time, because when you're young you're just trying to learn how to play. Not only that, but it gave me an introduction to Ellington's music first-hand, rather than just hearing it on records.

AAJ: How did your parents respond when you said, "Mom and Dad, I'm going on the road with Duke Ellington"?

KG: They were like, "We thought you were going to school." And I said, "I am." The deal was I was supposed to go for the summer, and that summer turned into three years and a half.

AAJ: Did you move to New York City after playing in the Ellington band and deciding that New York was the logical next step?

KG: I used to hang in New York after we would play our concerts. I would come and hang out and try to hear music. One time I was hanging out and I met Marcus Miller, although I didn't know who he was at the time. He playing at a club called Seventh Avenue South—I think it was Randy and Michael's [Brecker] club. There was a bassist who I didn't know about, and it turned out to be Jaco [Pastorius]. I had a chance to play with Jaco and Marcus and [drummer] Lenny [White] and all those guys while I was still in the Ellington band. I was still 18. Finally, when Mercer was getting ready to disband the band, I was contemplating whether I wanted to go to Detroit or come to New York, and I decided to come to New York and check it out. I was rooming with [pianist] Mulgrew Miller and [drummer] Tony Reedus. Mulgrew was also in the Ellington band during that time. He left the band and came to New York first.

AAJ: Twenty years later, it sounds incredible that your roommate trio was Mulgrew Miller, Tony Reedus and you. But I guess at the time you were just three guys trying to make it, right?

KG: We were just three guys trying to learn how to play music. We're all still friends to this day, so I guess it wasn't so bad. [laughs]

AAJ: How long after you made the move to New York did you go with Mel Lewis?

Kenny GarrettKG: They were having auditions. I think [saxophonist] Steve Coleman had just left. I heard it and thought, "I can read [music]," and I think called [saxophonist] Dick Oatts or one of the guys in the band to say that I'd like to come down. I think they'd already selected who was going to play, but I said I'd still like to come down and read the [band's song] book. So I had to read the book right on stage, and I got the gig. That was a bread-and-butter band, and it was a great band.

AAJ: For a guy whose career started in the late 70's and early 80's, it seems interesting that your first couple gigs were in big bands. People always think of that era being over by then.

KG: I caught the tail end of that. Playing in the Ellington band, doing double bills with Count Basie's band. When I came to New York, that was all I was doing—[saxophonist] Frank Foster's big band, [vibraphonist] Lionel Hampton's big band, [drummer] Charlie Persip's big band. It was a way for me to meet a lot of people and get a chance to play. When I was coming through, a lot of people came through big bands because that was all there was. Of course there was Art Blakey, but that was pretty much covered and there weren't that many other bands that you could play in as far as small groups. So I played in big bands and tried my hand at Broadway shows and decided that that wasn't what I really wanted to do. I wanted to play in a smaller situation. But I definitely played in a lot of big bands, and I learned to play the flute and piccolo because I wanted some security. So I was looking towards that. I started studying with [clarinet teacher] Leon Russianoff, who all the students from Juilliard studied with. And I came in as a saxophone doubler. It was a start.

AAJ: You mentioned having to get things together with 18 musicians when you were in the Ellington band. What did you learn from that kind of playing that you still use now?

KG: The main thing was blending. I learned how to blend with musicians. When I first joined that band, they taught me about phrasing and how to hear the horns. When I started playing with Freddy Hubbard and [trumpeter] Woody Shaw, I already had an idea of how I was going to blend and play with them as a front line, as opposed to just sticking out. class="f-right s-img"> Return to Index...


Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw

AAJ: You have Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw and Miles Davis on your resume. You mentioned that your initial connection to Freddie was through Marcus Belgrave. How did you build on that and end up recording with Freddie?

KG: When Freddie came to play in New York, he used to let people sit in. Anytime he was in town, I used to go and try to sit in. I think at that time Carl Allen was the musical director, and he told me that Freddie was trying to put together a young band. So it was [pianist] Donald Brown, [bassist] Ira Coleman and myself and Carl Allen. We used to play together without Freddie, because we were all in New York. When he would come, we knew the music so we became his band.

AAJ: Do you think he was letting people sit in because he was keeping his eyes open for new players?

KG: I'm not sure. At that time, a lot of people were doing that—Woody Shaw, George Coleman. I don't know if they were looking for musicians. There were so many saxophonists who wanted to play. And bass players—everybody.

AAJ: How did you get into Woody Shaw's band?

KG: That came about through my roommates Mulgrew Miller and Tony Reedus. They played with Woody, and they used to travel all the time while I was in New York playing with Mel Lewis. Woody wasn't really looking for an alto player. He had mainly tenor players, and then he had [trombonist] Steve Turre. One of his [Woody's] girlfriends really liked my playing. I used to go and sit in when my roommates were playing, but he wasn't really hearing alto at that time. But I remember sitting in one night and his girlfriend really liked my playing, so I started playing some more gigs with him. The band was [drummer] Terri Lyne Carrington, [pianist] Stanley Cowell, [bassist] Stafford James, and Steve Turre. class="f-right s-img"> Return to Index...


Introducing Kenny Garrett

AAJ: Where did your first album, Introducing Kenny Garrett (Criss Cross, 1984), fall in this whole timeline?

KG: For a while, I was playing with five bands. OTB [Out of the Blue, a band featuring young lions on the Blue Note label], Art Blakey, Freddy Hubbard, Woody Shaw and my band. And I think it was after that that Introducing Kenny Garrett came about. I ended up doing the Criss Cross date because my saxophone teacher Bill Wiggins was friends with [pianist] Kirk Lightsey, who knew [Criss Cross producer] Gerry Teekens. At the time, I was living with Mulgrew and Tony [who both play on the album], and [bassist] Nat Reeves used to come by, and I asked Woody Shaw to play. So just by sitting in, that's how I was able to bring him in for the recording.

AAJ: Did you sleep well before that first session?

KG: I slept well. I thought I was pretty prepared, although I wasn't as prepared as I thought I was. Musically, I knew I could do it, but I also knew Woody Shaw was Woody Shaw. I was just happy to have him on my CD.

AAJ: What was the session like?

KG: We did it from 12 [noon] to 6 [pm] with [legendary recording engineer] Rudy Van Gelder, and that was it.

AAJ: Did you come in with all the charts?

KG: Yeah. We had one rehearsal, and the next day we went into the studio.

AAJ: Had you been in Rudy's studio before?

KG: I think that was my first time. I'd heard about it, but that was my first time.

AAJ: Was this amazing for you? Was it as magical to record your first album with Rudy Van Gelder as it seems to me like it would be?

KG: I think I was more excited about Woody Shaw. Especially after I'd sat in a few times. I don't really think he knew what I was hearing, so that was more exciting, trying to get an opportunity to play with him and play my music.

AAJ: Did Woody comment on how it was going as you were recording?

KG: At the rehearsal, he said, "What have you been doing?" He could hear that I was starting to connect my ideas, and he was really excited. But I'd been checking out Woody and Joe Henderson, so some of what I was doing was around their way of playing.

AAJ: Do you ever listen to that first record?

KG: Only when someone plays it. I haven't listened to that record in a long time. I think it would be a little hard for me. When I do CDs, I just move on, because you live with it for so long. You're listening to it and critiquing it. That one was only one day in the studio, but with some of the newer ones you have a lot more time to listen to it and critique it. So I record them, live with them for a long time, and let them go. class="f-right s-img"> Return to Index...


Miles Davis

AAJ: We have to talk about Miles Davis. Has it taken a while for your work with Miles to become a piece of your past rather than your defining characteristic?

KG: In the beginning, I didn't really like that so much, but it was just part of the process. I learned to say, "That's my past, and I am the last saxophonist in Miles Davis's band." In the beginning it bothered me a little bit, but I learned to accept that that's how people remember me. They remember the "Human Nature solo, playing 5- and 10-minute solos. There's video footage of that. Even though I was still recording my music, I was touring the majority of the time with Miles. It doesn't bother me now, and people still say "former Miles Davis sideman" when they're doing a story because that's good for writing. In some ways it's good, in some ways it's bad, but it's part of my history.

AAJ: How did you get started with Miles?

KG: I was playing with Art Blakey, and I was auditioning for this French movie. A tenor player by the name of Gary Thomas came in and told me that Miles was looking for an alto player, and he asked if I was interested. I said, "Of course I'm interested. That's Miles Davis." So he gave me the number, and I called Miles. He wasn't in—his assistant told me he'd call back. When Miles called me back, I heard the voice and though it was Mulgrew Miller, who used to always imitate Miles. About 5 minutes into the conversation, I thought, "Man, this really is Miles." He told me to send him some music. At that time, I had some stuff with Art Blakey, OTB, and some more funky stuff I'd been working on, so I sent that to him. He called me back and said, "Kenny, it sounds like you're wearing Sonny Stitt's dirty drawers."

The funny thing about that situation was that I was only going to play with Miles for four gigs. I was still with Art Blakey. Art said to go on out and play with Miles, "You might learn something." So I went out and played four gigs. I think we played in Milwaukee and Ann Arbor, Michigan. The first two gigs, my microphone didn't work. By the third night, I had on my sunglasses and I was trying to be cool like Miles. When he played something I would play it. It was never something that we said, it was just something that we did. At that point he asked me to join the band. I think we were going to Austria and Israel, and then back to Cleveland. I ended up joining Miles and playing for five years.

AAJ: You had a cool problem, having to decide whether to stay with the Messengers or go with Miles.

KG: I guess Miles won out. [laughs] class="f-right s-img"> Return to Index...


Recording for Warner Bros.

AAJ: Did the exposure with Miles help you land a deal with Warner Bros. Records?

Kenny GarrettKG: At that time, I was still recording for Japanese labels, and then I did Prisoner of Love (Atlantic, 1989) for Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic. I think Ahmet heard me playing with Miles, and he called me and set up a meeting. And then, because it's all under the same umbrella, I ended up going with Warner Bros.

AAJ: I remember African Exchange Student (Atlantic, 1990) making a real splash when it came out. It seems like many of your records are events. Do you feel like you've had a good run with your records so far?

KG: The intent is really for each record to be something special. I've been able to make a living for 20 years playing music, and I don't take it for granted. When I make a CD, I try to make the best CD I can. I try to have the best musicians. I always try to make it something special for me, and then I hope that the audience will hear it and it will become special to them.

AAJ: Are there some high points for you from your Warner years?

KG: Every CD was done for a different reason. I did African Exchange Student because I was listening to something on the radio, and I thought, "That's a different interpretation of how I thought jazz was supposed to be." When I was doing Songbook (Warner Bros., 1997), I was playing with playing with [drummer] Jeff ["Tain" Watts] and [pianist] Kenny [Kirkland] and those guys, and I was really in a different space. I was writing, and I was really happy that I had some musicians who understood me conceptually. With Triology (Warner Bros., 1995), I was trying to see if I wanted to play trio. I went to Germany, and somebody ended up bootlegging a CD [Stars & Stripes Live (ITM, 1995)], so I decided to do a trio record because that one wasn't what I'd meant to do.

AAJ: What did you decide about playing trio?

KG: I loved it. I also play piano too, and it was like I was everybody—the bassist, the pianist, the drummer—at the same time. I had to be very lyrical. I felt it was a challenge, and I did it for a while. Not only that, but it was dedicated to my heroes, Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson. Those are my men. I really wanted to try to do it on a high level.

AAJ: Then came Pursuance: The Music Of John Coltrane (Warner Bros., 1996).

KG: That one came about because of a tune I wrote called "Sing A Song Of Song." People were really responding to this song, and I was thinking, "Why? It took five minutes to write this song." I couldn't figure out what it was that was touching everybody around the world. I remember talking to my manager about doing a [guitarist] Pat Metheny record, but there wasn't enough time to prepare that. So my manager said, "Why don't you do the music of John Coltrane?" I said, "The music of John Coltrane? Are you kidding me?" I thought about it for a few days—an alto player playing the music of John Coltrane. Then I called Pat and asked if he'd like to do the music of John Coltrane. Then I called [drummer] Brian Blade and Rodney Whitaker, and we chose the songs, ran down the tunes, and the next day we went in and recorded it.

AAJ: Why did you initially think "Are you kidding me?"

KG: I was thinking, "What am I going to play on the saxophone that John Coltrane hasn't played?"

AAJ: And what did you decide you could bring to it?

KG: I decided it would be a challenge. I challenged myself on Triology, and I figured Pursuance would be another challenge. class="f-right s-img"> Return to Index...


A Busy Sideman

AAJ: I don't know if people realize how much you've recorded as a sideman. Why do you still spend so much time recording with other people in and out of the jazz world?

KG: I just love to play music. Whether it's playing on [hip hop artist] Guru's Jazzmatazz Vol. 2 (Chrysalis, 1995), or with Sting, or with the New Jersey Symphony. I'm a musician at heart. I think there's a tendency to put people in different space, to say you only do this or this. I just say that I love to play music, and if someone calls me and says we'd like you to play, I say it's sounds like a challenge, let me try it. I did a gig at the Jazz Standard [in New York City] with [pianist] Pablo Ziegler, who played with [tango innovator] Astor Piazzola. I thought it would be a challenge—tango and jazz. I don't know a lot about tango, but I can try to interpret the music. It makes you grow as a musician.

AAJ: Why do you feature so much original composition on your records?

KG: I like to write music that reflects what I hear and what I experience. There are a lot of standards that have been around for a long time. I'm just trying to create a library of Kenny Garrett music. I always felt that Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane and Miles Davis—they all had music to go with their sound, and I wanted to have that, so I write my music. class="f-right s-img"> Return to Index...


Beyond the Wall

AAJ: And that brings us to your newest project, Beyond The Wall (Nonesuch, 2006), which is inspired by Chinese music and philosophy. I want to start by asking you about cultural assimilation. When you went to Japan, you learned some Japanese. When you went to China, you went without a translator and stayed off the beaten path. Why?

KG: When you make an effort to learn someone else's language, it opens up the door to communication with people. I was just in Russia. Even though I don't speak Russian, I tried to say a few things. When I first went to Japan, I was a pretty shy person. Then I got to Japan and saw people who were even shyer than I was. I decided to try to learn some Japanese, because I remember when I was on the plane, someone said, "Americans are lazy, they never try to learn any Japanese." So I decided to get a tape and try to learn some. And the Japanese people would encourage me all the time. They would open up and let me into their world, and I really liked that.

It was the same thing going into China. To me, the Chinese have always been mysterious. They've always been in their own little world. They have a civilization that's very old, and I wanted to know about it. I called a friend of mine who used to live in Beijing. He said, "If you're going to go, don't stay in a Westernized hotel. I'll find a place for you to stay." This place was in the neighborhood. I figured that if I wanted to learn about the people and the culture, that was the only way to understand it. If I stay in a Westernized hotel, there are always going to be people who speak English and who'll tell me what's going on. But I can get it first-hand if I stay in the neighborhood. I have to function, I have to blend in. I only had a month working on Chinese before I left—not even survival Chinese. But it wasn't so much that I was going to learn Chinese in three weeks—it was just the challenge of trying to go there.

That same year, I'd already been to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. When I was in Macau, it felt like how mainland China might be. I also wanted to learn about the music. When I got there, my friend's friends picked me up. They took me to this apartment where I was going to stay. And I never saw them again. [laughs] That was it. So I was struggling, trying to survive, but I was learning so much about myself. I remember going down this old street and I heard this erhu [a two-stringed Chinese instrument, pronounced ar-hoo]. At the time, I didn't know what it was. I saw this little storefront. No one was there, but I went inside, knocked on the door, and there was this guy playing erhu in his bedroom, which was still part of the store. He just invited me in and I listened. And that's the instrument I use on "Tsunami Song" [from Beyond The Wall]. I learned more about the culture and the people in three weeks than I would have if I'd stayed there for a year. I remember when I was first learning Japanese, I thought I had to be perfect. But when I said, "I'm not Japanese—I'm going to speak this language and I'm going to make mistakes," I was fine. And that's the same with Chinese or any other language.

AAJ: You wrote the music for this record before you actually went to China, right? This had been brewing for a while.

KG: It had always been a dream of mine to go to China, so I wrote the tune ["Beyond The Wall"] with the intention of creating something where I could go there. I wanted to go "beyond the wall." I didn't write that tune with the intention of creating a concept for a CD. When I started talking with people at Nonesuch, it was really brewing then. And then there was a lot of talk in the media about the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. I had an idea of what I thought [the music] was. I practiced out of this Chinese violin book, but I didn't know if that was exactly what it was. I needed to go there to make sure.

AAJ: This band really seems to tie together your life story, from your former roommate Mulgrew Miller to Robert Hurst, who came out of Marcus Belgrave's band, to Bobby Hutcherson, whom you've played with on your own records, to Pharaoh Sanders, who was in Coltrane's orbit. This band seems to bring all that together in one place.

KG: I had these people in mind. The main thing was really Pharaoh and Bobby. These are my mentors. I call Pharaoh and Bobby all the time and talk to them about music and about life. So when I was thinking about doing the CD, I was trying to write some music that would really inspire them. Sometimes when you do an "all-star" record, it really doesn't gel. I've played with Pharaoh and Bobby a few times, and I was hoping I could tap into what would inspire them. I hoped Pharaoh would go to "that place," and that I could write something that would help him go there. Same thing with Bobby.

AAJ: You've said that you were initially trying to make a connection between African and Chinese culture. What's the bridge there?

KG: I'd been reading some books on Chinese and African philosophy, and it seemed close. And both of them are using the pentatonic [five-note] scale. The rhythm is different, but it's still the same scale. There was one song that I didn't get a chance to record. It was actually a dialogue between Pharaoh and I, and it was really trying to bring in the spiritual context of Africa and China. With this dialogue you would have really been able to see [the musical connection], but there was so much music that I wasn't able to put it all on the CD.

AAJ: Are you getting a chance to tour with this band?

KG: I'm going to do some stuff with Pharaoh at Birdland in October, and also in D.C. I'm not sure if Bobby is on those dates yet. I'd really like to do something at a performing arts center where I could bring the strings and everybody together and present that, because it was such a special recording. There were never any egos. It was just a great experience.

AAJ: Did you give any of the musicians recordings of Chinese music before you did the recording?

KG: I got together with Mulgrew, because I really wanted him to have an understanding of the voicings that I was hearing and the concept of it. Since it was dedicated to [pianist] McCoy [Tyner], there was a lot of McCoy's vibe in there. I didn't want him to play like McCoy. I just wanted him to understand that. class="f-right s-img"> Return to Index...


The McCoy Tyner Connection

AAJ: Why did you dedicate this to McCoy?

KG: A lot of people do tribute records to someone after they're deceased. I figured that I should dedicate some of this music that was inspired by McCoy's music of the 70s and 80s to him.

AAJ: What's the McCoy connection?

KG: For me, there's always been a spiritual element to McCoy's playing, and the Chinese connection—a lot of times I think of McCoy as a Chinese pianist. On "Qing Wen" you can actually hear McCoy. That's his vibe. Even though there's a Chinese feel to it, it reminds me of what McCoy was doing in the 70s.

AAJ: Did Mulgrew get that vibe?

KG: Yeah. Once I played the piano parts for him, he knew what I wanted. I was playing it like McCoy. But with a pianist of Mulgrew's caliber, you don't say, "Play like McCoy," you just say "This is how I'm hearing it," and you let them interpret the music.

AAJ: What kind of direction did you give to Pharaoh and Bobby?

KG: The main thing was just to get them to hear the music. To play the melodies and to bring their personalities to it. When you're writing music, you have something in mind. But when you're playing with people of that caliber, all you do is bring the music and allow them to interpret it. I didn't have to say much.

AAJ: What did Pharaoh bring to the record?

KG: He had a chance to stand on the bandstand with John Coltrane, and I now I have a chance to stand on the bandstand with him. This isn't the first time we've played together, but it's the first time we've recorded. So I just wanted to get together and share.

AAJ: And what did Bobby bring?

KG: I'd just recorded with Bobby, and he was on my record Happy People (Warner Bros., 2002). I had a sketch, and he'd add some different texture to it. I think this is music that people like Bobby and Pharaoh have experienced at some point. They've both played with McCoy, so I imagine they've heard something similar to that.

AAJ: You wrote most of the record before going to China. Did the music change after you came back?

KG: When I came back, I had a different understanding of what the music was. I needed to go to make to sure my concept was close, because I was isolated from the Chinese culture. When I went there it gave me a clearer understanding. When I came back I knew I needed more cymbals, more gong, more percussion, to give it the flavor. But I was still working against time. I had to get in the studio and make the record.

AAJ: Do you have favorite moments, or moments where you think you were particularly successful?

KG: Songs like "Qing Wen" that I feel are closer to the Chinese vibe, or "Realization (Marching Toward The Light)" that gives me that flavor. "Tsunami Song" really has that flavor. You have to listen to the record a few times to really get the feel of it. class="f-right s-img"> Return to Index...


Expanding the Group

AAJ: We've been talking about the main band, but there are actually more than a dozen other musicians on this album—strings, voices, erhu, percussion. Why did you bring in those additional players?

KG: The main thing is that when I'm writing, I always hear a voice. When I got in the studio, I knew on "Kiss To The Sky" that I wanted voices. Sometimes in music, it's trial and error. I tried out a lot of different things in the process.

AAJ: How did you find an erhu player to do the session?

KG: I told my manager, and he went on the Internet and found a guy [Guowei Wang]. I went down to Chinatown [in New York City]. The guy played one note and I said that's it. He lifted the music. He knew exactly what to play.

Kenny GarrettAAJ: Had he ever played jazz before?

KG: He told me later that he'd done something with [saxophonist] Ornette Coleman, but not in this context. He'd done something a little freer. I think this was the first time he was actually reading music and still having a chance to improvise.

AAJ: What was it like hearing it in the studio?

KG: It was great. I wanted to hear it play the whole song. It's just a little box with two strings, but this guy could make a big sound.

AAJ: Have you worked with strings before?

KG: I've always wanted to do something with strings. I worked with the New Jersey Symphony playing the music of Charlie Parker, but this is the first time I've had strings on my own project.

AAJ: How was it different arranging for strings?

KG: I wasn't really arranging for strings per se. I had a sketch. I did the same thing for voices. I had a sketch of certain things that I wanted to be played, and then I wanted the other things to be loose and free. Every time we played it, I wanted a different interpretation of the song. For example, I'd tell the harpist that I want a lot of colors or a particular run, or I'd tell the cello to play the bottom of the chord. The erhu part was written out. It was the same for the vocals on "Kiss To The Sky." There was a sketch, but when we get to the improvisation, it's about them playing with the musicians. You're part of the horn section now.

AAJ: What do you want listeners to take away from Beyond The Wall?

KG: I want people to take a minute to reflect on the Creator. Let the music take you on a little trip. There are so many obstacles out here to be distracted by, and I think at some point we need to reflect on that.

AAJ: Do you think Chinese listeners would think of this music as inspired by a Creator, or divinely inspired?

KG: I don't know if they would say it like that, but when I hear music that's been around for a long time, I can feel that. I'm always looking for music that has that element. They may not interpret it exactly the same way I do, but I can feel it in there.

Selected Discography

Kenny Garrett, Beyond The Wall (Nonesuch, 2006)

Kenny Garrett, Standard Of Language (Warner Bros., 2003)

Kenny Garrett, Happy People (Warner Bros., 2002)

Kenny Garrett, Old Folks (WestWind, 2001)

Kenny Garrett, Simply Said (Warner Bros., 1999)

Kenny Garrett, Songbook (Warner Bros., 1997)

Kenny Garrett, Pursuance: The Music of John Coltrane (Warner Bros., 1996)

Kenny Garrett, Triology (Warner Bros., 1995)

Kenny Garrett, Stars & Stripes Live (ITM, 1995)

Kenny Garrett, Threshold (Warner Bros., 1994)

Kenny Garrett, Black Hope (Warner Bros., 1992)

Kenny Garrett, African Exchange Student (Atlantic, 1990)

Kenny Garrett, Prisoner Of Love (Atlantic, 1989)

Kenny Garrett, Garrett 5 (Paddle Wheel, 1988)

Kenny Garrett, Introducing Kenny Garrett (Criss Cross, 1984)

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Combustion: Kenny Garrett Live (Concert Review, 2003)

Photo Credits
Top Photo: Genevieve Ruocco
Second Photo: Jim Semlor
Third Photo: Jose Manuel Horna
Bottom Photo: Courtesy of Kenny Garrett



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