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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.
All About Jazz: 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.
AAJ: 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.
AAJ: 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.
AAJ: 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.
I love jazz because anything is possible; it has few rules and the best jazz breaks those ones. I prefer free improv because it doesn't really have any rules at all.
I was first exposed to jazz in my teens (in the late sixties).
The first jazz record I bought was Filles de Kilimanjaro by Miles Davis, shortly followed by Extrapolation by John McLaughlin.
My advice to new listeners is to listen as widely as possible and not to make snap judgments--stick with it.