Kenny Garrett: Musical Explorer

Jason Crane By

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A Busy Sideman

AAJ: I don't know if people realize how much you've recorded as a sideman. Why do you still spend so much time recording with other people in and out of the jazz world?

KG: I just love to play music. Whether it's playing on [hip hop artist] Guru's Jazzmatazz Vol. 2 (Chrysalis, 1995), or with Sting, or with the New Jersey Symphony. I'm a musician at heart. I think there's a tendency to put people in different space, to say you only do this or this. I just say that I love to play music, and if someone calls me and says we'd like you to play, I say it's sounds like a challenge, let me try it. I did a gig at the Jazz Standard [in New York City] with [pianist] Pablo Ziegler, who played with [tango innovator] Astor Piazzola. I thought it would be a challenge—tango and jazz. I don't know a lot about tango, but I can try to interpret the music. It makes you grow as a musician.

AAJ: Why do you feature so much original composition on your records?

KG: I like to write music that reflects what I hear and what I experience. There are a lot of standards that have been around for a long time. I'm just trying to create a library of Kenny Garrett music. I always felt that Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane and Miles Davis—they all had music to go with their sound, and I wanted to have that, so I write my music. class="f-right"> Return to Index...

Beyond the Wall

AAJ: And that brings us to your newest project, Beyond The Wall (Nonesuch, 2006), which is inspired by Chinese music and philosophy. I want to start by asking you about cultural assimilation. When you went to Japan, you learned some Japanese. When you went to China, you went without a translator and stayed off the beaten path. Why?

KG: When you make an effort to learn someone else's language, it opens up the door to communication with people. I was just in Russia. Even though I don't speak Russian, I tried to say a few things. When I first went to Japan, I was a pretty shy person. Then I got to Japan and saw people who were even shyer than I was. I decided to try to learn some Japanese, because I remember when I was on the plane, someone said, "Americans are lazy, they never try to learn any Japanese." So I decided to get a tape and try to learn some. And the Japanese people would encourage me all the time. They would open up and let me into their world, and I really liked that.

It was the same thing going into China. To me, the Chinese have always been mysterious. They've always been in their own little world. They have a civilization that's very old, and I wanted to know about it. I called a friend of mine who used to live in Beijing. He said, "If you're going to go, don't stay in a Westernized hotel. I'll find a place for you to stay." This place was in the neighborhood. I figured that if I wanted to learn about the people and the culture, that was the only way to understand it. If I stay in a Westernized hotel, there are always going to be people who speak English and who'll tell me what's going on. But I can get it first-hand if I stay in the neighborhood. I have to function, I have to blend in. I only had a month working on Chinese before I left—not even survival Chinese. But it wasn't so much that I was going to learn Chinese in three weeks—it was just the challenge of trying to go there.

That same year, I'd already been to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. When I was in Macau, it felt like how mainland China might be. I also wanted to learn about the music. When I got there, my friend's friends picked me up. They took me to this apartment where I was going to stay. And I never saw them again. [laughs] That was it. So I was struggling, trying to survive, but I was learning so much about myself. I remember going down this old street and I heard this erhu [a two-stringed Chinese instrument, pronounced ar-hoo]. At the time, I didn't know what it was. I saw this little storefront. No one was there, but I went inside, knocked on the door, and there was this guy playing erhu in his bedroom, which was still part of the store. He just invited me in and I listened. And that's the instrument I use on "Tsunami Song" [from Beyond The Wall]. I learned more about the culture and the people in three weeks than I would have if I'd stayed there for a year. I remember when I was first learning Japanese, I thought I had to be perfect. But when I said, "I'm not Japanese—I'm going to speak this language and I'm going to make mistakes," I was fine. And that's the same with Chinese or any other language.

AAJ: You wrote the music for this record before you actually went to China, right? This had been brewing for a while.

KG: It had always been a dream of mine to go to China, so I wrote the tune ["Beyond The Wall"] with the intention of creating something where I could go there. I wanted to go "beyond the wall." I didn't write that tune with the intention of creating a concept for a CD. When I started talking with people at Nonesuch, it was really brewing then. And then there was a lot of talk in the media about the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. I had an idea of what I thought [the music] was. I practiced out of this Chinese violin book, but I didn't know if that was exactly what it was. I needed to go there to make sure.

AAJ: This band really seems to tie together your life story, from your former roommate Mulgrew Miller to Robert Hurst, who came out of Marcus Belgrave's band, to Bobby Hutcherson, whom you've played with on your own records, to Pharaoh Sanders, who was in Coltrane's orbit. This band seems to bring all that together in one place.

KG: I had these people in mind. The main thing was really Pharaoh and Bobby. These are my mentors. I call Pharaoh and Bobby all the time and talk to them about music and about life. So when I was thinking about doing the CD, I was trying to write some music that would really inspire them. Sometimes when you do an "all-star" record, it really doesn't gel. I've played with Pharaoh and Bobby a few times, and I was hoping I could tap into what would inspire them. I hoped Pharaoh would go to "that place," and that I could write something that would help him go there. Same thing with Bobby.

AAJ: You've said that you were initially trying to make a connection between African and Chinese culture. What's the bridge there?

KG: I'd been reading some books on Chinese and African philosophy, and it seemed close. And both of them are using the pentatonic [five-note] scale. The rhythm is different, but it's still the same scale. There was one song that I didn't get a chance to record. It was actually a dialogue between Pharaoh and I, and it was really trying to bring in the spiritual context of Africa and China. With this dialogue you would have really been able to see [the musical connection], but there was so much music that I wasn't able to put it all on the CD.

AAJ: Are you getting a chance to tour with this band?

KG: I'm going to do some stuff with Pharaoh at Birdland in October, and also in D.C. I'm not sure if Bobby is on those dates yet. I'd really like to do something at a performing arts center where I could bring the strings and everybody together and present that, because it was such a special recording. There were never any egos. It was just a great experience.

AAJ: Did you give any of the musicians recordings of Chinese music before you did the recording?

KG: I got together with Mulgrew, because I really wanted him to have an understanding of the voicings that I was hearing and the concept of it. Since it was dedicated to [pianist] McCoy [Tyner], there was a lot of McCoy's vibe in there. I didn't want him to play like McCoy. I just wanted him to understand that. class="f-right"> Return to Index...

The McCoy Tyner Connection

AAJ: Why did you dedicate this to McCoy?

KG: A lot of people do tribute records to someone after they're deceased. I figured that I should dedicate some of this music that was inspired by McCoy's music of the 70s and 80s to him.

AAJ: What's the McCoy connection?

KG: For me, there's always been a spiritual element to McCoy's playing, and the Chinese connection—a lot of times I think of McCoy as a Chinese pianist. On "Qing Wen" you can actually hear McCoy. That's his vibe. Even though there's a Chinese feel to it, it reminds me of what McCoy was doing in the 70s.

AAJ: Did Mulgrew get that vibe?

KG: Yeah. Once I played the piano parts for him, he knew what I wanted. I was playing it like McCoy. But with a pianist of Mulgrew's caliber, you don't say, "Play like McCoy," you just say "This is how I'm hearing it," and you let them interpret the music.

AAJ: What kind of direction did you give to Pharaoh and Bobby?

KG: The main thing was just to get them to hear the music. To play the melodies and to bring their personalities to it. When you're writing music, you have something in mind. But when you're playing with people of that caliber, all you do is bring the music and allow them to interpret it. I didn't have to say much.

AAJ: What did Pharaoh bring to the record?

KG: He had a chance to stand on the bandstand with John Coltrane, and I now I have a chance to stand on the bandstand with him. This isn't the first time we've played together, but it's the first time we've recorded. So I just wanted to get together and share.

AAJ: And what did Bobby bring?

KG: I'd just recorded with Bobby, and he was on my record Happy People (Warner Bros., 2002). I had a sketch, and he'd add some different texture to it. I think this is music that people like Bobby and Pharaoh have experienced at some point. They've both played with McCoy, so I imagine they've heard something similar to that.

AAJ: You wrote most of the record before going to China. Did the music change after you came back?

KG: When I came back, I had a different understanding of what the music was. I needed to go to make to sure my concept was close, because I was isolated from the Chinese culture. When I went there it gave me a clearer understanding. When I came back I knew I needed more cymbals, more gong, more percussion, to give it the flavor. But I was still working against time. I had to get in the studio and make the record.

AAJ: Do you have favorite moments, or moments where you think you were particularly successful?

KG: Songs like "Qing Wen" that I feel are closer to the Chinese vibe, or "Realization (Marching Toward The Light)" that gives me that flavor. "Tsunami Song" really has that flavor. You have to listen to the record a few times to really get the feel of it. class="f-right"> Return to Index...

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