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Interviews

Kenny Garrett: Musical Explorer

By Published: September 11, 2006


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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Kenny Garrett @ Stanford (Concert Review, 2004)
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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