Kenny Garrett: Musical Explorer
AAJ: Did the exposure with Miles help you land a deal with Warner Bros. Records?
KG: 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 everybodythe bassist, the pianist, the drummerat 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 daysan 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.
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 challengetango 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 Davisthey all had music to go with their sound, and I wanted to have that, so I write my music.
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 leftnot even survival Chinese. But it wasn't so much that I was going to learn Chinese in three weeksit 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 JapaneseI'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.