Alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett's first recording for Nonesuch, a concept album inspired by a recent trip to China, finds him in the company of an all-star ensemble. A phenomenally gifted soloist with a singular tone and instantly identifiable phrasing, he has walked a fine line between mainstream jazz and more popular forms in the recent past. In previous situations with producer Marcus Miller, Garrett veered dangerously close to watered down smooth jazz. Beyond The Wall remedies this situation.
Incorporating elements of traditional Chinese folk music and modal structures into his animated and funky hard bop compositions, Garrett arrives at a hybrid not far removed from John Coltrane's mid-1960s Eastern meditations. The inclusion of tenor saxophone legend Pharoah Sanders makes the connection to Coltrane's work implicit. Pianist Mulgrew Miller's invocation of McCoy Tyner, with his distinctive comping, further cements the Coltrane vibe.
Reuniting Garrett with inventive drummer Brian Blade, this session harkens back to the raw sound of two of his Warner Bros. releases, Triology (1995) and a Coltrane tribute, Pursuance (1996). Bassist Robert Hurst III and the celebrated vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, a guest soloist whose buoyant playing adds vitality and color, round out the ensemble.
In the presence of Sanders, Garrett delivers some of the most impassioned statements of his career. Sanders plays mostly straight-ahead, with only minor hints at his extreme past. Sparring with the master on "Calling," Garrett matches his reserved intensity note for note. Garrett's ravishing solo on the concluding "May Peace Be Upon Them" is blissfully cathartic.
Garrett, playing piano, augments "Tsunami Song" with traditional Chinese instruments such as the ehru and a small string section, adding exotic color and texture. Vocalist Nedelka Echols and a handful of back-up singers intone soulful vocalese on a few tracks, and Garrett overdubs chanting Tibetan Monks on "Realization (Marching Toward the Light)." While these touches add to the record's overall Eastern feel, the longer, dominant pieces still reside squarely in the hard bop realm, full of energetic group interplay and rousing solos.
Beyond The Wall stands tall in Garrett's discography. Removed from the lite funk of Happy People (Warner Bros., 2002), it follows his final Warner release, Standard of Language (2003), in quality and intensity. An equitable blend of Eastern meditation and impressive hard bop swing, this album updates the excursions of New Thing-era explorers in subtle but pleasing ways.
Calling; Beyond the Wall; Qing Wen; Realization (Marching Toward the Light); Tsunami Song; Kiss to the Skies; Now; Gwoka; May Peace Be Upon Them.
Kenny Garrett: alto saxophone (1-4,6-9), piano (5); Pharaoh Sanders: tenor saxophone
(1-4,6-8); Mulgrew Miller (1-4,6-9); Robert Hurst, III: bass; Brian Blade: drums; Bobby
Hutcherson: vibes (3,4,6,7,8); Ruggerio Boccato: percussion (1,3,4-8);
Nedelka Echols: vocals (3,4,6,8); Genea Martin, Kevin Wheatley, Arlene Lewis, Geovanti
Steward, Dawn Caveness: vocals (6,8): vocals; Guowei Wang: erhu (5); Jonathan
Gandelsman: violin (5); Neil Humphrey: cello (5); Susan Jolles: harp (5).