If vigorous jazz leaves you faint, Kenny Garrett's eighth Warner album, Standard of Language, will knock you out cold. It is intense and unrelenting in its goal of cutting a new edge on the traditions that have shaped Garrett's mastery of the saxophone.
It is clear from the opening technical interplay between drums and sax on Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love?" (the only cover tune on the album) that this record pushes Garrett and company back towards their roots. In the process, this album clarifies Garrett's desire to stay away from the dreaded moniker of "easy listening."
"Since Songbook I've been concentrating on writing strong melodies. I want to try to establish new jazz standards," says Garrett, adding, "That's what I'm trying to doestablish something a little different as opposed to playing the same old songs over and over."
Garrett's groupincluding pianist Vernell Brown, bassist Charnett Moffett, and the drum tandem of Chris Dave and Eric Harlandis out to prove that the legacies of those who inspired them are emphatically alive and striving for the greater musical good. Perhaps they hit the listener over the head with this mandate. If so, it is a wonderful problem to have. Better to scale back than scale down.
"XYZ" may symbolize this record: a tightly structured six minutes with Kenny Garrett dancing on the scales of imagination while also pushing the envelope of his playing. Jazz enthusiasts will love this, but let's be clear: this is not easy listening. Put this in the background of a dinner party and you'll make your guests tense. That is the whole point. Standard of Language is impossible to dismiss.
One wonders if Miles Davis (with whom Garrett toiled in his early years) would have let the structures of these songs breathe for 20 minutes instead of six. Maybe that's the biggest difference between the Kenny Garretts of today and their predecessors: a tendency for brevity.
"Doc Tone's Short Speech" features Vernell Brown on piano. Brown got his career off to a quick start, discovered as a substitute pianist at a Grammy In The Schools program. He started playing piano when he was four and then switched primarily to drums from six until thirteen. This song is dedicated to the late Kenny Kirkland, the pianist on Garrett's trio album Songbook.
Garrett flairs for the dramatic on "Just A Second To Catch My Breath"a tune which shows how this saxophonist from Detroit can flex his style. "My first song like that was 'Before It's Time To Say Goodbye' from Songbook.," says Garrett. "I love movies, and one day, I hope to score a film."
"Gendai" may mean present tense in Japanese but, on this album, it marks a return to the technical phrasing and ensemble work that define this as solidly bold jazz. It would be something to see this music performed live.
The three movement suite, "Standard of Language," will remain alive in Garrett's live repertoire for many years to come. This marks the first time Garrett has written a suite. The music turns our attention back to the heated beginning of jazz improvisation and compositional playingparticularly by guest drummer Eric Harland. If there is a drawback, the first movement may ramble in areas of jazz that confound the mainstream listener's understanding.
Standard of Language ambitiously strives to propel jazz music forward. This collection reflects Kenny Garrett's belief that the future of jazz rests on his ability to feverishly inject intensity into any carelessly pedestrian grasp of the genre. Listen with care.
Personnel: Kenny Garrett (alto and soprano saxophone), Vernell Brown (piano), Charnett Moffett (bass), Chris
Dave (drums), Eric Harland (drums, "Standard of Language").
Record Label: Warner Bros.