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Kenny Garrett Quartet: Denver, CO, May 4, 2012

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Kenny Garrett Quartet
Soiled Dove Underground
Denver, CO
May 4, 2012

The last couple times Kenny Garrett came through Denver, he was a sideman. In 2010 he toured with Chick Corea's Freedom Band that also featured Christian McBride on bass and 85-year-old Roy Haynes on drums. The year before, Garrett was a member of the Five Peace Band which also featured Corea and McBride, along with John McLaughlin on guitar and Vinnie Colaiuta on drums. His role in both bands was to play the head or theme of the tune with the rest of the band, then lay out until his turn came to solo. Often, his blistering alto sax solos were highlights of the song, but his role was like a relief pitcher's, called on for just a few minutes for a specialized job.

Of course, like most jazzers, Garrett started off as a sideman, in his case with the Duke Ellington Orchestra (led at the time by Mercer Ellington) and later with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and Miles Davis, among others. But Garrett has also been leading his own bands for a couple of decades. He's now back to the front and center of the bandstand and touring in support of his latest CD, Seeds From the Underground (Mack Avenue, 2012). As the leader, besides being the focal point on stage, he also gets to write all the songs. His compositional theme for the album was to pay homage to those who have influenced his music over the years. The title track, for instance, evokes all his mentors that planted musical seeds that continue to sprout and thrive through Garrett's music.

Friday night's set at the Soiled Dove Underground consisted exclusively of tunes from the new album, except for the title track from Garrett's 2002 album, Happy People (Warner Bros. 2002) to close the show. One thing Garrett picked up during his time collaborating with McLaughlin was an interest in different time signatures. Seeds From the Underground features several tunes outside the typical jazz 4/4 paradigm and Garrett played a couple of those Friday night. A particular highlight was the title track written in 7/4 time, featuring a dark, brooding feel tailor-made for Garrett's searching, pleading solos. He added quotes from "Work Song" and "Chameleon." Normally, that might not be worth mentioning, but "Work Song" and "Chameleon" in 7/4 time? Now we're having some fun.

Another outside-the-box (or outside-the-standard-meter) tune was "Wiggins," a tribute to his high school music teacher. This one was all over the place, time-wise. The main theme seemed to have two 7/4 measures followed by two 3/4 measures followed by something else, or perhaps not. The constant shifting of the foundation, coupled with the frantic soloing of Garrett and pianist Vernell Brown, created playoff-level tension and excitement. "Detroit," on the other hand, offered a respite from the intensity of most of the rest of the program. That was an acknowledgement of trumpeter and mentor Marcus Belgrave and featured a relaxed two-chord structure, whose album version includes some pops and crackles like a well used record.

Drummer McClenty Hunter was a particular highlight, laying down polyrhythms all night. No mere timekeeper, McClenty seemed to be constantly soloing, which added to the urgency of the band's sound. Corcoran Holt's bass provided a solid foundation next to the fury of McClenty's drumming (except when the time signature was bucking like a 9.5 magnitude earthquake).

Garrett broke the intensity that was a hallmark of most of the evening with "Happy People." That album of the same name, in contrast to the current disc, is much more accessible, some may even say bordering on jazz-smoothness. Garrett is no smooth jazz player, however, so even when the rhythm section started to sound more like something you'd hear on the radio, Garrett's alto sax never lost its edge; searching, imploring and ultimately biting in an emotional catharsis.

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