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Kenny Garrett: Back To The Future

Jason Crane By

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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.

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