Kenny G At Last...The Duets Album
This album is the pinnacle of artistic inspiration, an achievement nonpareil for annihilating depression, a lone triumph among the hundreds of albums scrutinized annually in search of gems.
Kenny G's At Last - The Duets Album is, in short, everything a jazz reviewer might possibly hope for. The ultimate stage for creative indulgence, limited only by natural ability.
Mine, of course, not his.
Mr. Gorelick has never been the subject of a review at AAJ and probably never will be again, although I can't imagine why. If there's a better cure for writer's block it's probably illegal and sold by the gram on street corners. Readers with doubts should check out the most excellent essay about The Jazz Soul Of P.D.Q. Bach collaboration by Kenny G and Pat Metheny published April 1, 2004.
Duets is, literally, an April Fool's Joke brought to life.
It consists of 13 mostly well-known songs performed with stars ranging from LeAnn Rimes to David Benoit to Gladys Knight. The shock I felt before realizing the Metheny collaboration was a joke resurfaced when I saw Arturo Sandoval and David Sanborn among the co-conspirators. Was the G man capable of coaxing real players into a studio and offering a competitive level of performance?
Let's dispense with pretense: I'm writing this and most regulars are probably reading it to see how many amusing and scathing ways the concept of awful can be expressed. Fair enough, but a couple of ground rules: no using a thesaurus to look up words such as "pathetic" and at least an effort at objective insight into why the G man's work is considered such an abomination.
The obvious reason is the vast commercial success of a string of albums featuring melodies a fifth- grader can play without difficulty, nourished by chord-tone solos whose only complexity are long tension notes and scale runs using his infamous circular breathing. Simple isn't necessarily bad: "So What" and "Blue In Green" are as basic as it gets, but for Miles Davis those melodies were a starting point, not the end product.
Many blame Gorelick for contributing mightily to the enormous amount of audio pollution clogging airwaves as endless imitators try, usually unsuccessfully, to mount that cash cow. But a reality check: the G man didn't pioneer vapid instrumentals and a few errant moments where he strays from his cocoon of clichés reveal he is not without talent. Some of his pre-"Songbird" work and a couple of lesser-known songs on his Live album possess real elements of gritty funk. I was even willing to view Classics In The Key Of G as a useful contribution that might get a large mainstream audience interested in standards - until he performed an unconscionable act of auditory graffiti over Louis Armstrong on "What A Wonderful World."
OK, onto the album, the merits of which I've neglected for nearly 500 words. Mr. Gorelick's fans might point this out and accuse me of a juvenile episode of literary diarrhea undertaken for no reason other than taking easy cheap shots with no intent of giving credit where due. I beg to differ: In a very legitimate sense the G man's ability to inspire passion with rampant simplicity is perhaps the ultimate key of his success.
Duets , when judged with the grade curve necessary of his albums, is neither a triumph nor an abomination. Its strongest element is diversifying beyond the usual collection of cotton candy ballads thanks to the range of guest performers. But this comes at the expense of some embarrassing performances by musicians I respect and exposure to too many unable to be embarrassed.
First, the two collaborations with players that were my greatest fear: "Pick Up The Pieces" is a trivial funk riff with Sanborn that might have been catchy if either performer ventured beyond the melody, but it's not so awful as to embarrass the alto guest. And brace yourself: Gorelick's collaboration with Sandoval on a pop ballad version of "At Last" is actually a staggering triumph of competence. It's hardly exceptional, but phrasing dabbles beyond pure pop into some basic jazz with real interplay between the saxman and trumpeter against a '40s-style backdrop.
Most of the rest of the album consists of those pop ballads that normally appear one or two at a time on smooth jazz albums in order to boost radio appeal. The G man's vocal dancing around his guests varies so little that after a while he almost disappears from the conscious forefront, at which point at least a couple of songs become acceptable. Knight isn't bad on "Misty" and Chaka Khan mixes mellow with a bit of growling nicely on "Beautiful." But mostly it's pathetic ear candy, from Rimes on "(Everything I Do) I Do It For You" to the sleepy "The Music That Makes Me Dance" with Barbra Streisand.
To say I would never recommend this album or purchase it for anyone is inaccurate. The audience for this type of music is vastly larger than those listening to "real" jazz, plenty of my friends and relatives included. I might make it a mandatory listen if I were teaching a music journalism class, as a way of measuring students' creativity and objectivity - sort of like making debate members argue the opposite of their true position. My own essay, by the way, probably rates a "D-plus" due to its obvious predisposition against fairness and excessive length.
Finally, it must be noted I was downcast when I started playing this album and lighthearted by the end. No matter how that came about, it means the G man managed to emotionally engage me, something many more "accomplished" albums fail to achieve. Accordingly, and recognizing he can achieve this in his intended way with a large crowd, it seems only fair to show respect by refraining from any final potshots.
Anyone needs me, I'll be surfing over at www.thesaurus.com .