Kenny Garrett: Musical Explorer

Jason Crane By

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Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw

AAJ: You have Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw and Miles Davis on your resume. You mentioned that your initial connection to Freddie was through Marcus Belgrave. How did you build on that and end up recording with Freddie?

KG: When Freddie came to play in New York, he used to let people sit in. Anytime he was in town, I used to go and try to sit in. I think at that time Carl Allen was the musical director, and he told me that Freddie was trying to put together a young band. So it was [pianist] Donald Brown, [bassist] Ira Coleman and myself and Carl Allen. We used to play together without Freddie, because we were all in New York. When he would come, we knew the music so we became his band.

AAJ: Do you think he was letting people sit in because he was keeping his eyes open for new players?

KG: I'm not sure. At that time, a lot of people were doing that—Woody Shaw, George Coleman. I don't know if they were looking for musicians. There were so many saxophonists who wanted to play. And bass players—everybody.

AAJ: How did you get into Woody Shaw's band?

KG: That came about through my roommates Mulgrew Miller and Tony Reedus. They played with Woody, and they used to travel all the time while I was in New York playing with Mel Lewis. Woody wasn't really looking for an alto player. He had mainly tenor players, and then he had [trombonist] Steve Turre. One of his [Woody's] girlfriends really liked my playing. I used to go and sit in when my roommates were playing, but he wasn't really hearing alto at that time. But I remember sitting in one night and his girlfriend really liked my playing, so I started playing some more gigs with him. The band was [drummer] Terri Lyne Carrington, [pianist] Stanley Cowell, [bassist] Stafford James, and Steve Turre. class="f-right"> Return to Index...

Introducing Kenny Garrett

AAJ: Where did your first album, Introducing Kenny Garrett (Criss Cross, 1984), fall in this whole timeline?

KG: For a while, I was playing with five bands. OTB [Out of the Blue, a band featuring young lions on the Blue Note label], Art Blakey, Freddy Hubbard, Woody Shaw and my band. And I think it was after that that Introducing Kenny Garrett came about. I ended up doing the Criss Cross date because my saxophone teacher Bill Wiggins was friends with [pianist] Kirk Lightsey, who knew [Criss Cross producer] Gerry Teekens. At the time, I was living with Mulgrew and Tony [who both play on the album], and [bassist] Nat Reeves used to come by, and I asked Woody Shaw to play. So just by sitting in, that's how I was able to bring him in for the recording.

AAJ: Did you sleep well before that first session?

KG: I slept well. I thought I was pretty prepared, although I wasn't as prepared as I thought I was. Musically, I knew I could do it, but I also knew Woody Shaw was Woody Shaw. I was just happy to have him on my CD.

AAJ: What was the session like?

KG: We did it from 12 [noon] to 6 [pm] with [legendary recording engineer] Rudy Van Gelder, and that was it.

AAJ: Did you come in with all the charts?

KG: Yeah. We had one rehearsal, and the next day we went into the studio.

AAJ: Had you been in Rudy's studio before?

KG: I think that was my first time. I'd heard about it, but that was my first time.

AAJ: Was this amazing for you? Was it as magical to record your first album with Rudy Van Gelder as it seems to me like it would be?

KG: I think I was more excited about Woody Shaw. Especially after I'd sat in a few times. I don't really think he knew what I was hearing, so that was more exciting, trying to get an opportunity to play with him and play my music.

AAJ: Did Woody comment on how it was going as you were recording?

KG: At the rehearsal, he said, "What have you been doing?" He could hear that I was starting to connect my ideas, and he was really excited. But I'd been checking out Woody and Joe Henderson, so some of what I was doing was around their way of playing.

AAJ: Do you ever listen to that first record?

KG: Only when someone plays it. I haven't listened to that record in a long time. I think it would be a little hard for me. When I do CDs, I just move on, because you live with it for so long. You're listening to it and critiquing it. That one was only one day in the studio, but with some of the newer ones you have a lot more time to listen to it and critique it. So I record them, live with them for a long time, and let them go. class="f-right"> Return to Index...

Miles Davis

AAJ: We have to talk about Miles Davis. Has it taken a while for your work with Miles to become a piece of your past rather than your defining characteristic?

KG: In the beginning, I didn't really like that so much, but it was just part of the process. I learned to say, "That's my past, and I am the last saxophonist in Miles Davis's band." In the beginning it bothered me a little bit, but I learned to accept that that's how people remember me. They remember the "Human Nature solo, playing 5- and 10-minute solos. There's video footage of that. Even though I was still recording my music, I was touring the majority of the time with Miles. It doesn't bother me now, and people still say "former Miles Davis sideman" when they're doing a story because that's good for writing. In some ways it's good, in some ways it's bad, but it's part of my history.

AAJ: How did you get started with Miles?

KG: I was playing with Art Blakey, and I was auditioning for this French movie. A tenor player by the name of Gary Thomas came in and told me that Miles was looking for an alto player, and he asked if I was interested. I said, "Of course I'm interested. That's Miles Davis." So he gave me the number, and I called Miles. He wasn't in—his assistant told me he'd call back. When Miles called me back, I heard the voice and though it was Mulgrew Miller, who used to always imitate Miles. About 5 minutes into the conversation, I thought, "Man, this really is Miles." He told me to send him some music. At that time, I had some stuff with Art Blakey, OTB, and some more funky stuff I'd been working on, so I sent that to him. He called me back and said, "Kenny, it sounds like you're wearing Sonny Stitt's dirty drawers."

The funny thing about that situation was that I was only going to play with Miles for four gigs. I was still with Art Blakey. Art said to go on out and play with Miles, "You might learn something." So I went out and played four gigs. I think we played in Milwaukee and Ann Arbor, Michigan. The first two gigs, my microphone didn't work. By the third night, I had on my sunglasses and I was trying to be cool like Miles. When he played something I would play it. It was never something that we said, it was just something that we did. At that point he asked me to join the band. I think we were going to Austria and Israel, and then back to Cleveland. I ended up joining Miles and playing for five years.

AAJ: You had a cool problem, having to decide whether to stay with the Messengers or go with Miles.

KG: I guess Miles won out. [laughs] class="f-right"> Return to Index...

Recording for Warner Bros.

AAJ: Did the exposure with Miles help you land a deal with Warner Bros. Records?

Kenny GarrettKG: At that time, I was still recording for Japanese labels, and then I did Prisoner of Love (Atlantic, 1989) for Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic. I think Ahmet heard me playing with Miles, and he called me and set up a meeting. And then, because it's all under the same umbrella, I ended up going with Warner Bros.

AAJ: I remember African Exchange Student (Atlantic, 1990) making a real splash when it came out. It seems like many of your records are events. Do you feel like you've had a good run with your records so far?

KG: The intent is really for each record to be something special. I've been able to make a living for 20 years playing music, and I don't take it for granted. When I make a CD, I try to make the best CD I can. I try to have the best musicians. I always try to make it something special for me, and then I hope that the audience will hear it and it will become special to them.

AAJ: Are there some high points for you from your Warner years?

KG: Every CD was done for a different reason. I did African Exchange Student because I was listening to something on the radio, and I thought, "That's a different interpretation of how I thought jazz was supposed to be." When I was doing Songbook (Warner Bros., 1997), I was playing with playing with [drummer] Jeff ["Tain" Watts] and [pianist] Kenny [Kirkland] and those guys, and I was really in a different space. I was writing, and I was really happy that I had some musicians who understood me conceptually. With Triology (Warner Bros., 1995), I was trying to see if I wanted to play trio. I went to Germany, and somebody ended up bootlegging a CD [Stars & Stripes Live (ITM, 1995)], so I decided to do a trio record because that one wasn't what I'd meant to do.

AAJ: What did you decide about playing trio?

KG: I loved it. I also play piano too, and it was like I was everybody—the bassist, the pianist, the drummer—at the same time. I had to be very lyrical. I felt it was a challenge, and I did it for a while. Not only that, but it was dedicated to my heroes, Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson. Those are my men. I really wanted to try to do it on a high level.

AAJ: Then came Pursuance: The Music Of John Coltrane (Warner Bros., 1996).

KG: That one came about because of a tune I wrote called "Sing A Song Of Song." People were really responding to this song, and I was thinking, "Why? It took five minutes to write this song." I couldn't figure out what it was that was touching everybody around the world. I remember talking to my manager about doing a [guitarist] Pat Metheny record, but there wasn't enough time to prepare that. So my manager said, "Why don't you do the music of John Coltrane?" I said, "The music of John Coltrane? Are you kidding me?" I thought about it for a few days—an alto player playing the music of John Coltrane. Then I called Pat and asked if he'd like to do the music of John Coltrane. Then I called [drummer] Brian Blade and Rodney Whitaker, and we chose the songs, ran down the tunes, and the next day we went in and recorded it.

AAJ: Why did you initially think "Are you kidding me?"

KG: I was thinking, "What am I going to play on the saxophone that John Coltrane hasn't played?"

AAJ: And what did you decide you could bring to it?

KG: I decided it would be a challenge. I challenged myself on Triology, and I figured Pursuance would be another challenge. class="f-right"> Return to Index...

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