Every summer, the otherwise sleepy campus of Stanford University is overrun by the living masters of jazz. For six weeks, these players teach classes to teenage students by day and dazzle the general public at night. One of the headliners of this year's festival was Kenny Garrett, who was making not only his first appearance at the venerable festival, but his only San Francisco Bay Area gig of 2001.
In the cozy confines of Dinkelspiel Auditorium, playing seven tunes in a single two-hour set, Garrett and his quartet treated a few hundred spectators to a display of his remarkable range, from ferocious post-bop to soothing ballads, putting to rest any notion that he'd gone smooth, as some alleged after the release of his Simply Said album. But the billing may have been misleading: this wasn't the Kenny Garrett Show; it was the Kenny Garrett and Chris Dave Show. Drummer Dave entered into a complex dialogue with Garrett early in the set, and this conversation was woven through the entire evening.
The band hit the ground running, laying down an intense urban swing for Garrett's composition "Two Down and One Across". Garrett, dressed in his trademark black suit and grey skullcap, faced the left side of the stage as he played, rocking and bobbing from his knees and hips. As the energy level crept ever higher, Garrett's playing shattered into a seemingly endless series of blasted phrases and variations, matched blow for blow by the manic drumming of Dave. Dressed casually and looking more like a hip-hop artist than a first-rate jazz drummer, the dreadlocked Dave seemed strangely relaxed despite the thunder coming from his kit. A piano solo from Vernell Brown Jr., who was excellent throughout the set, finally broke the tension. Brown's playing was fast and dense but extremely lyrical, swinging like mad while never stepping outside the lines. By the time the tune came back to earth after some 20 minutes, the entire crowd was happy for a moment to catch its breath.
Amazingly, the energy was largely sustained through a second number, a new composition called "Chief Blackwater". Here Brown set the pace as up-tempo and funky with some heavy chords that literally shook the walls. The tune was representative of Garrett's recent work, sporting a deceptively simple theme that the band was able to mine for many choruses of improvisational gold. After signaling for the sidemen to lay out for a while, Garrett let loose a stream of surprisingly long and complex lines that eventually fractured and re-gathered into a sort of whirlwind of sound.
This technique of fracturing and mutating a repeated phrase to create momentum was applied to marvelous effect in a cover of John Coltrane's "Giant Steps". Garrett made it known from the start that this would be no mere imitation, daring to state the daunting theme in double-time. After a straightforward solo with amusing references to "Get Happy" and "Camptown Races", Garrett took the famous descending five-note theme of the tune and sped it up into a riff which, when combined with a drum solo full of tom-tom rolls and march rhythms, suggested nothing so much as a runaway locomotive.
It was only after this tune, nearly an hour into the performance, that Garrett decided to acknowledge his audience. But the second half of the set, which was composed entirely of ballads, saw a much greater degree of interaction with the crowd. Garrett encouraged handclaps on the soulful "Delta Bali Blues", and would later get the audience to carry the melody of his catchy crossover hit, "Sing a Song of Song". A wonderfully smoky reading of "Body and Soul" helped continue the intimate vibe of this hour, with Garrett and Brown taking the entire song as a tender duet before the rhythm section joined in for a few extra choruses.
Garrett put aside his alto saxophone only twice, switching to soprano for "Delta Bali Blues" and briefly doubling on a Korg synthesizer to provide some soothing washes during a bass solo. Bassist Vincente Archer was a solid presence throughout the set, often lending a muscular, funky groove to the proceedings. But he appeared uninspired in his two solos, finding his ground only in the final moments of each.
The choice of "Sing a Song of Song" as the closing tune was obvious, but nonetheless welcome. With Dave borrowing the rhythm from Ahmad Jamal's version of "Poinciana" and a deep, confident piano solo from Brown, the band swept the crowd out of its chairs and carried them blissfully away. Garrett wasn't out of surprises either, turning in a solo full of exotic tones and raw spiritual energy that was reminiscent of Pharoah Sanders. He left the crowd on its feet and humming happily, and easily earned his headliner status at the festival.