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Kenny Garrett: Back To The Future


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I'm trying to write a story. And in this story, every time I close a chapter there's something new that happens. And that's life.
Kenny GarrettDetroit's Kenny Garrett is a restless man. Before he'd even released his 2006 Nonesuch album Beyond The Wall, he'd already moved on to a different band with a completely different repertoire. And it's always been like that for Garrett, who is constantly searching for new territory to mine and new corners of the world—both geographical and musical—to explore.

For his album Sketches of MD (Mack Avenue, 2008), Garrett is invoking the spirit of his former boss, trumpeter Miles Davis. The music on the CD combines sonic ideas from several of Davis's former sidemen, including Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Garrett himself. Garrett's musical foil on the recording is saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders.

All About Jazz: It sounds on Sketches of MD like you guys were having a wonderful time on stage. Is that what it fel t like from your perspective?

Kenny Garrett: We were having a great time. What I was trying to do with this CD was to document Pharaoh and I together. We'd played together a few times, but we never got a chance to document it. So I decided that I wanted to put some songs together to create something that would be a little different. During the sound check that week, I introduced these songs and we started playing them. We had fun.

AAJ: If there's one thing you can say about a Kenny Garrett record, it's that there's not one thing you can say about a Kenny Garrett record. Folks who are looking for Beyond The Wall Part 2 are going to hear something completely different on this album. What were you going for?

KG: I just wanted spontaneity. The songs were new to everybody. Most of the time when you do a live CD, you prepare and decide what you're going to record. I wanted to see what we could come up with, so it wasn't like any conceived idea of what it would be.

AAJ: You mentioned the last time we talked that Pharaoh Sanders is one of the musicians with whom you frequently talk about musical choices and life in general. When did you first become aware of him as a saxophonist?

KG: I knew about Pharaoh a long time ago from him coming to Michigan—so I knew about him as a musician, and I knew that he was into [saxophonist John] Coltrane. I think the first time I remember meeting him, kind of indirectly, was when I was doing something at Kimball's East in Emoryville [California]. I had done African Exchange Student (Atlantic, 1990). Pharaoh came to the gig and I was like, "Wow, Pharaoh Sanders is coming to see Kenny Garrett." From that time, we hooked up as friends, so when I would show up at one of his concerts, he would say don't show up unless I bring my horn. So that was the thing. But I only played in his band playing his music. Then we got a chance to do some live gigs where he was playing in my band, playing my music.

AAJ: Let's mention the other guys who are in this band.

Kenny GarrettKG: "Doctor Reeves," as I call him, Nat Reeves—he's pretty much been on all of my records. We go back. We came to New York together. He's a bassist extraordinaire. We've had a long friendship on the bandstand and off the bandstand. Also there's Benito Gonzalez, a pianist who's making some noise out there. I met him through Beyond The Wall because I wanted a pianist who understood the sensitivity of [pianist] McCoy Tyner, so I called Benito in, and the same thing with Jamire Williams. He comes from Houston, through a school of drummers who've all played with me. First there was Chris Dave, then Mark Simmons, then Eric Harland, now Jamire Williams. They all come from the "Houston School." So those are musicians out there making some noise.

AAJ: This album is called Sketches of MD, which stands for Miles Davis. How much of the Miles theme came to you before the show, and how much just seemed to fit after you'd recorded?

KG: I think it's a combination of both. It wasn't anything planned, but when you have musicians who understand and who've heard some of the same music, I think it's easy to go to those places. For me, Miles is always there in my music, somehow, somewhere. Sometimes it's not as obvious. I think on [the tune] "Sketches of MD" the idea was just to play melodies and see how many vibes I could conjure up.

AAJ: You mentioned that this band was already the band that you were playing with and doing gigs with even when Beyond The Wall was coming out. It seems like you move on quickly after you've done a project. You're already looking ahead.

KG: I'm definitely always looking ahead, because that's the only way I can close a chapter. There are so many musical ideas that I have, and in order to be able to do them all, I would have to move to the next idea. That's what I do. Since I've done Sketches of MD, I've actually changed bands [laughs]. For me there are so many ideas, that I have to move on a little quicker than I want to. And you're only allowed to do maybe one CD a year.

AAJ: One of the special moments on this record is "Intro To Africa," which I understand is a sneak preview of a longer work that's coming up. Can you talk about how it ended up on this record and what we might expect to hear in the future?

KG: It's a complete piece, but we couldn't get to the rest of it because it's a little more complicated than just going on the bandstand and saying, "We're going to play that." I wanted to be as spontaneous as possible without people having to struggle to play the music. What I've been doing lately is playing the whole—it's not really a suite—but it's coming from the church, and then there's one part that goes into a jukebox kind of part, then an African part.

AAJ: This tune really seems to allow Pharaoh to find something special.

KG: I think they all allow Pharaoh to get something special, but when Pharaoh heard this song in rehearsal, he knew right away what to do. He's probably done songs like this all his life. I introduced it and he just fell right into it right away. Going back to the first tune, "The Ring"—I was at Pharaoh's house and I came up with this idea of a melody, some overtones that I was practicing on. And he said, "Just keep working on it." So when we decided that we were going to play that week at the Iridium, I pulled the tune out and we started going at it. He was encouraging me to do that.

When you have great musicians, you always try to find a vehicle for them to play. Sometimes you can put people together and it doesn't really click. But for some reason, Pharaoh understands where I'm coming from, and he's always right there.

Kenny GarrettAAJ: I was home at our house this morning while we were having a washing machine delivered. I had this record on loud, and the delivery guy kept walking through the room to get to the basement. After several trips through, he stopped and said, "This is great! What is it?" It was on the tune "Happy People" at that point. I have to believe, listening to the crowd at the Iridium, that the guy who delivered our washing machine is not the only person blown away by the vibe of "Happy People." It seems like everybody loves that tune.

KG: It seems to be one of those tunes that people wait for. We played in France at Parc Floral, and we played this song and the people went crazy. It was like 45 minutes. The next time we went to play there, they had security at the stage, because as soon as we started playing this song, they knew what was going to happen because it was just so crazy. When I travel the world, people wait for this song.

AAJ: Can you talk about the Iridium and why you chose to record there?

KG: The Iridium allows me to be myself and to experiment with different music. Sweet Basil used to be a place like that, where I would play and I had a relationship with the club. This is a relationship [at the Iridium] that I've built with the club over the years, and I play there and feel comfortable.

AAJ: What kind of crowd comes out to a Kenny Garrett show these days?

KG: It varies, because there are so many different CDs. You have people coming for Beyond The Wall, Triology (Warner Bros., 1995), Happy People (Warner Bros., 2002)—they come for all different things. It's hard to say who's in the crowd.

AAJ: You mentioned that you've already moved on, even from this record. What are you working on now?

KG: The band that I'm playing in now consists of an organ, electric bass and drums, synthesizers and Fender Rhodes. It's something I've been wanting to try for years, and I said, "Let me just do it." Like I said, in order for me to move on to the next chapter, I have to close this one.

Kenny GarrettAAJ: A lot of musicians—certainly in the pop and rock worlds, but also in the classical and jazz worlds—when they find something that really works, they do it a lot, because that's what people have come to the show to hear. How does your insistence on moving forward impact your crowd or your ability to draw a crowd?

KG: I think the people who know Kenny Garrett know that he's going to keep moving. If I hadn't had a chance to move, there wouldn't be Beyond The Wall or Pursuance (Warner Bros., 1996) or Songbook (Warner Bros., 1997). I need to experiment. I think the fans come to see what's going on, and I think there's an element in the music that they gravitate towards, no matter what genre it is.

AAJ: This album is on the Detroit-based label Mack Avenue Records. Why did you make the move to Mack Avenue?

KG: I felt that Mack was hungry and they were really trying to find different ways of presenting the music. That's the same for myself. I wanted to find a label that would allow me to experiment with different styles. They're up and coming, they're experimenting, they're open. That's the same thing I'm doing.

AAJ: Does your choice of label have an impact on what you record?

KG: If you have a relationship with the company, I think that helps to allow you to be yourself. It's a business, and people at the record company have an idea of what they think will sell. But the bottom line is having a relationship and being able to do the music that you want to do.

AAJ: You said earlier that Nat Reeves has been on just about every one of your records. What is it about Nat's playing that makes him a good fit for you?

KG: The first thing is that he has a terrific beat and a beautiful sound. But the second thing is that he's my friend, and we go way back. We came to New York together. I have ideas, and when you perform with someone for years, you write something you think might challenge them, but at the same time, they might bring something new to the table. I think with all my friends, I try to write something that will really challenge them or some music that will inspire them to create something. With Nat, we just have this relationship, and I know that he's going to give me what I need.

align="center">Kenny Garrett

AAJ: You seem to be having a great time making music and challenging yourself to do new things.

KG: That's true. The challenge is trying to find something that will motivate you to keep going. One of the biggest lessons I learned from Miles Davis was just to be yourself and to keep going. I'm trying to write a story. And in this story, every time I close a chapter there's something new that happens. And that's life. I've traveled the world. I was recently in Taiwan, Thailand, Japan and different places, and I try to bring some of those influences and experiences in with my music. I don't try to separate, I just try to say, "This is part of who I am and I'm sharing it with the world." Like on Beyond The Wall, where it was Asia and Africa and jazz together—if I hadn't had an opportunity to go to China, I don't think that would have come to fruition.

AAJ: What's coming up next for you?

KG: I'm going to play at the Iridium, then in DC, then I'm going out with this band with [pianist] Chick Corea and [guitarist] John McLaughlin and [bassist] Christian McBride and [drummer] Vinnie Colaiuta. So I'm looking forward to that. I'm also looking forward to writing more music for the new band and trying to come up with some new concepts.

Selected Discography

Kenny Garrett, Sketches of MD (Mack Avenue, 2008)

Kenny Garrett, Beyond The Wall (Nonesuch, 2006)

Kenny Garrett, Standard Of Language (Warner Bros., 2003)

Kenny Garrett, Happy People (Warner Bros., 2002)

Kenny Garrett, Old Folks (WestWind, 2001)

Kenny Garrett, Simply Said (Warner Bros., 1999)

Kenny Garrett, Songbook (Warner Bros., 1997)

Kenny Garrett, Pursuance: The Music of John Coltrane (Warner Bros., 1996)

Kenny Garrett, Triology (Warner Bros., 1995)

Kenny Garrett, Stars & Stripes Live (ITM, 1995)

Kenny Garrett, Threshold (Warner Bros., 1994)

Kenny Garrett, Black Hope (Warner Bros., 1992)

Kenny Garrett, African Exchange Student (Atlantic, 1990)

Kenny Garrett, Prisoner Of Love (Atlantic, 1989)

Kenny Garrett, Garrett 5 (Paddle Wheel, 1988)

Kenny Garrett, Introducing Kenny Garrett (Criss Cross, 1984)

Photo Credits

Top photo: C. Andrew Hovan

Middle Photo: Jazzboo

Bottom Photo: Bill King

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