A Fireside Chat with Kenny Garrett
“ ...I played with Sting and I played with Guru and I played with Q-Tip, but I also played with the legends of music like Woody Shaw, Freddie Hubbard, and Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers. I have always loved all kinds of music. ”
Once upon a time, Miles Davis recorded Live Around the World, including a catchy version of 'Human Nature.' An unknown Kenny Garrett, all of twenty-eight at the time, was featured on alto. Garrett didn't remain unknown long, recording Introducing Kenny Garrett with Woody Shaw and becoming 'the' alto player with a trio of critically acclaimed releases, Triology, Pursuance, and Songbook. But Garrett soon ran out of favor with the old guard who received his next two releases with less than a lukewarm reaction. Pity, since Garrett still remained one hell of an alto player, which he proves once more on his latest release, Standard of Language. Folks, Kenny Garrett, returned from the critical abyss of being typecast as 'smooth' anything, unedited and in his own words.
FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.
KENNY GARRETT: My father played tenor saxophone, so there was always a saxophone around the house. He actually bought me my first alto saxophone and I remember it vividly because it had bullet holes that had been soldered and I wasn't sure where he got that horn from, but I didn't care. I just wanted to play it. And he taught me a scale and kind of sent me off.
FJ: Perhaps not so much now, but earlier in your career, Kenny Garrett wasn't mentioned without a Miles Davis reference.
KG: I was in Miles' band for about five years. I think that tag will always be there. That is five years of my life. That's the only musical situation that I was there longer than a year. It was a good five years. I have gotten used to that. Some people became aware of me through Miles and then they would come to my concerts. I think that is part of my history and I am proud of that. I am still trying to carve out my own name and my own music. I just look at it as a part of history and it is going to be there. Every time they mention Kenny Garrett, there will probably be some association with Miles Davis, but at the same time, when they mention Herbie Hancock, they always mention Miles Davis, or Wayne Shorter. You get used to it after a while.
FJ: I don't want to buck the trend. In the Kenny Garrett dictionary, what is the definition of Miles Davis?
KG: He is basically this person who did what he wanted to do musically. He was just being defiant about what he believed in and I think during that time, no one was doing that. He was pretty adamant that that is what he wanted to do regardless of what people said. I remember one time, playing in Hawaii and the electricity went out and Miles started playing ''Round Midnight' and everybody was excited. I was excited too because I was waiting for him to get to the bridge so I could jump in (laughing), but the thing is that is what people remembered and that is what they want to hear sometimes. I digressed a little bit, but sometimes I think we are all guilty of trying to hold a person in one place. I was guilty of that too. One of my favorite singers is Whitney Houston and remember she came out with a kind of hip-hop record and I was like, 'Whitney, why you doing that?' Well, she has to change just like everybody else, but we want to hold her to that image and that sound. I think that is why I am a little more relaxed about letting people have their opinion. Some people might want to hear me when I was with Miles Davis. Some people might want to hear me with Art Blakey. Some people might like the way I played with Woody Shaw. That is all fine. It is all a growing stage. I just figure where I am at now is where I am supposed to be and that is what I do.
FJ: African Exchange Student was a nice coming out. It featured your composition, 'Shaw,' written I suppose for the late Woody Shaw.
KG: Yes, that was definitely for Woody. I have a lot of tunes for Woody. I have a tune on Black Hope which is called 'Run Run Shaw.' There is a tune on Happy People called 'A Hole in One,' written for Tiger Woods, but in the back of my mind, I am always thinking of Woody Shaw. His influence and his presence is always in my music somehow. Woody Shaw, I think in the community, people definitely knew about him. When I first got to New York and I starting hearing Woody Shaw, I was roommates with Mulgrew Miller and Tony Reedus, who were playing in his band. I got a chance to hear him a lot more probably than other people. The thing that I liked about Woody was that he came from Freddie (Hubbard), but he also, at some point, started to develop his own thing. To me, not only that, he was coming from Trane too. When I think of Woody Shaw, I think of John Coltrane. Harmonically, I think of John Coltrane. It gave me a chance to hear music differently and it was definitely at one of his peaks in his musical career. For me, I really got a chance to hear Woody and to hear him play nights where no one heard him. I have tapes of him when I was screaming, he was playing so much trumpet and then I had an opportunity to play with Woody Shaw and Freddie Hubbard on the Double Take CDs and that was beautiful too, but he wasn't in the same shape as he was when I heard him. He was healthier. He was playing stronger. He was going to Europe a lot. During that time, Woody was playing the most trumpet for me. Even though I love Freddie Hubbard, Woody, just harmonically, he was playing what I wanted to hear at that point.
FJ: In music, as it is in life, those who build you up, ultimately tear you down.
KG: I'm just an artist who is trying to come up with some music and I try not to get caught up into that. I realized that a long time ago. If you play something that they like, they embrace it. If you play something that's a little bit different or a little more experimental, they might not embrace that. The main thing is that when I go to sleep or when I wake up and I look in the mirror, I am fine with myself. I do musically what it is that I feel at the time. I just do that. I don't justify it or explain it. It is just what it is.
FJ: Because a backlash started to swell with portions of Simply Said, culminating with Happy People, which was considered 'smooth jazz.'
KG: I don't know because I didn't pay any mind. I didn't read the articles about that. I just do music. I just put it out there and I know that there are some people who are going to embrace it and there are some people who are not going to embrace it. The main thing is that I am doing what I want to musically. First of all, I think a lot of times, people just don't understand Kenny Garrett as a person. They don't understand that I played with Sting and I played with Guru and I played with Q-Tip, but I also played with the legends of music like Woody Shaw, Freddie Hubbard, and Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers. I have always loved all kinds of music. I think they just kind of missed that or they decided that they wanted to hear a certain thing and that is fine, but I just do what I am feeling at the time and I just let people decide what it is that they want to decide.
FJ: But admittedly Happy People was not merely a 'departure.' There is a reason it received as much airplay as it did from radio stations called 'The Wave.'
KG: Well, Art Blakey used to say that everyone has an opinion and as far as my music, I have the opinion that counts for me. I know what it is that I am trying to convey to people, but like I said, some people will get it and some people won't get it. I have fans who come up to me and they only heard African Exchange Student. I have some who come to me and listen to Simply Said. I have some who come to me after listening to Pursuance. Everybody has their favorite CD or CDs and my thing is that I just keep moving on. A friend of mine called me the other day and he just bought Happy People. It has been out already and now it is time for a new CD, Standard of Language. Sometimes the artists are moving a little quicker than some of the fans are. I think the main thing is if you find something you like by Kenny Garrett, that is fine, but just be open-minded because that is how I am. I am open-minded about life and about music and that is all I am interested in doing at this time, just playing music that I enjoy. There will be some people that say that Kenny Garrett is back. He is playing Standard of Language. That is fine. I am there at that point. I might be some place else on the next record, but I am not really concerned with that. For example the title track of Simply Said was played on forty-two of the 'smooth jazz' stations and that is fine. My intention wasn't to be 'smooth jazz.' My intention was to play music. They embraced that and that is cool, but I still have to do the next record. I just love music. I listen to, of course, jazz. I listen to hip-hop. I listen to Japanese, Chinese, Middle Eastern music, a lot of different styles of music. To me, I just try and incorporate that in there. I had a great teacher. Miles was my teacher. I definitely learned a lot from him, but I was always open-minded about music and that is the reason I ended up in the band.
FJ: As with the majority of your recordings, Standard of Language features your own compositions.
KG: I usually just write tunes. I am always writing. I can actually go into the studio tomorrow and I can have another CD. I just love writing and I am blessed. The music just comes to me and I figure at that time, it is best just to record it. I just basically write. I like the whole flow of the CD. It is the picture that I wanted to depict. I don't have any favorite songs. They are all my tunes and they all have different reasons. There is 'Chief Blackwater,' which was inspired by McCoy Tyner from The Real McCoy, 'Passion Dance.' 'Doc Tone's Short Speech' was dedicated to Kenny Kirkland and 'Kurita Sensei' was actually for a Japanese teacher I had in Japan. I was there for two weeks. Then you have 'What is This Thing Called Love?,' where we actually changed our harmony up and it was one of those challenging tunes that everybody wanted to play and we had to document it. Then you have 'Native Tongue,' which was a lighter kind of tune that I wrote right before the session. There are just different meaning behind them. I just like the whole concept of the CD.
FJ: A handful of the tracks were recorded during the weeks after 9-11.
KG: We didn't put it aside, but we definitely had to get to the music because we were out in L.A. and we were scheduled for three days in the studio and it ended up being four days. We recorded eighteen songs in that time. I think the main thing that helped us get focused was Bobby Hutcherson, who read through me and understood what I was trying to deal with. My approach was to be serious. This was a serious incident and I felt that I needed to be serious, but what he wanted to do was lighten it up. Play music and not make it that serious. He found a way. He is a great storyteller. He had people laughing and that broke the ice. We knew we had to go to the place that we go to really focus in on the music and once we got there, it helped. But in the beginning, we were running back and forth to the television, trying to figure out what was going on. To me, it was a serious approach.
FJ: Isn't not having a working band an Achilles heel?
KG: Well, as a leader, you always try to have a regular band of musicians who understand what you are trying to do conceptually. Every time you change, it changes the music a little bit, but I think it is also a learning experience. It teaches you how to become a better bandleader and how to deal with different personalities and how to make it gel. I remember the first time joining Miles Davis' band and we had a guy who was from the R&B and a guy who was from hip-hop and I was from the jazz school, but he knew how to get what he was looking for. That's the thing that I've learned, that no matter who is there, we can always play music because I am listening to what it is they can offer to the band. At that point, it is almost like Duke Ellington. I take their strengths and turn it into the music. I make the music sound as good as it can sound. I have so many tunes and so many directions that I can go, it has never been a problem for me, but it has been a learning experience. A lot of times, the younger musicians that I have in the band, their generation is from hip-hop. That is what they want to do. What I try to do is expose them, just like Miles exposed me to some different music. If I tell the drummer who is playing with me now that I want to hear the latest beat. I want to hear the beat by 50 Cent. He is going to know that. If I tell them to play me a beat by Elvin or Tony Williams, they may not know that. So I tell them to check these records out. I think they like the fact that we are playing all different styles of music in the context of a jazz band and I think a lot of musicians are happy about that because they can find everything there. They can go to the bakery and get an assortment of things for them to eat. I think, for me, that is what I liked about music.