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Kenny Garrett: The Value of Ancestors

Kenny Garrett: The Value of Ancestors

Courtesy Hollis King


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I want to write songs like that. I want to write songs where people can remember the melody no matter what genre it is.
—Kenny Garrett
Saxophonist Kenny Garrett has always respected the music of his predecessors. He knows its importance. He knows the value of the tradition, knowledge and innovation passed on to new generations of musicians.

He's recorded, for example, dedications to John Coltrane (Pursuance, Warner Bros., 1996), as well as Joe Henderson and Sonny Rollins (Trilogy, Warner Bros., 1992)). Heck, Garrett, undoubtedly one of the finest alto saxophonists (any style saxophone, for that matter) of his generation, has played with many of the great masters over time— Henderson, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard, Chick Corea, Chucho Valdes, the Duke Ellington Orchestra and so many more. At age 61, he is now one of the mentors, one of the people that young musicians look up to and emulate. He handles that role as he has handled himself since emerging on the scene right out of high school—with humility, honesty and class.

His latest recording is Sounds from the Ancestors (Mack Avenue, 2021). Like the title suggests, it draws inspiration from the past. But not ancient ancestors, though there is the sound of Africa on the title cut and the opening (and closing) "It's Time to Come Home." The "sounds" Garrett draws on are from his past. People he knew, like Roy Hargrove ("Hargrove") and Blakey ("For Art's Sake") and some of the music that has had an impact him. It's not always jazz.

"The concept of Sounds From the Ancestors really comes from when I was a kid," says Garrett. "When I was little, around Thanksgiving time, I would take all my 45s and I would hide them. And I would pull them out on Christmas day, just kind of listen to all this music. It would fill up my heart and my soul... What I was trying to do with that was contact some of these spirits from some of the music that I used to listen to, like Aretha Franklin, people like Marvin Gaye. Some of the writing is just kind of where I am at this point. I always look at it is a continuation of what happened before. This to me feels like a continuation."

The music was recorded in 2019, before the pandemic started. "I was really already there with the concept and trying to write music from that. There were more things added to it. There's more vocal things. There's trumpet. The electric keyboard, I'm playing. I'm playing the acoustic piano on 'Sounds From the Ancestors,' on the intro. I think there are a lot of things that I got a chance to hear and got a chance to think about. I had more time to kind of envision what I thought needed to be there," he says. "Trying to come up with musical concepts is like a continuation of a live show—trying to add to the list, to the variety of music. A continuation of that, and experiences that I've had with people like Chucho Valdes."

Garrett's soaring sax makes his point. There's his fierce, bebop-style chops, but there are also funky things, soft things. They are all part of his arsenal. He even becomes percussive, morphing into the rhythm section with short blasts from his horn on "It's Time to Come Home."

"I was trying to make a musical statement," says Garrett. "Then I was having a conversation with the percussionists. I was a percussionist at that point. It wasn't the saxophonist playing melodic lines. I was playing rhythmically at the time, another part of my playing. Because I've been fortunate to play with people like Chucho Valdes and work with some of the Gwo Ka (a form of rhythm native to the archipelago of Guadeloupe) masters like the guitarist Christian Laviso from Guadeloupe. So a lot of that influence my playing. I wanted to be the percussionist and so I was having a conversation with the percussionists."

Garrett wrote all the music, a process that was involved and difficult. He was trying to draw on different sources, including classical Spanish. "Sometimes it's trying to find a new way of organizing yourself, or the colors. A lot of the songs that are a little different I was trying to, instead of just have the A and B, have a C section and a D section on a particular part. I've written so in many different keys. I never think about it, I just kind of sit and then try to conjure up these spiritual vibes and see where it will will take me. A lot them are different in that sense. I think "For Art's Sake" is a little different. 'Sounds from the Ancestors' is kind of what I do, but a little different. Because I'm actually creating a different section where we can find another way to play and connect differently. I think the core of who you are as a writer allows you to try something new or something that would be a little different. When I sit down I'm always trying to find another vehicle, to apply this technique to another place than where it was on the last thing."

Garrett has accomplished that with a stellar album overall. It has different moods and different flavors. It's intense and moving. His young band excels at carrying out his mission. The basic band is pianist Vernell Brown bassist Corcoran Holt, drummer Ronald Bruner and percussionist Rudy Bird. There are some guests including drummer Lenny White, trumpeter Maurice Brown and conguero Pedrito Martinez.

Garrett has been able to do some touring and hopes to do more, though there are still questions about COVID's resurgence during the winter month and rumblings of yet another variant. "It feels good to be able to play for live audiences," he says. "People really missed the music. It's good energy that people bring into the concerts. It feels good to be able to play again."

The saxophonist is someone who has it together. He is intelligent, yet unassuming and affable. He is kind and considerate and a person of good humor. His reflection on the worst of COVID in 2020 is that it was a blessing in some ways. The cup wasn't half empty.

"I've been doing this since I was 17. I was contemplating [a slowdown in his touring] anyway. Once [the shutdown] happened, it made it easier because it wasn't just me doing it by myself. It was the whole world. It allowed me to reflect on life and really look at what's important and how to approach it coming back out."

He spent more time with his wife, daughter and grandchildren. "That was a great thing. It kind of distracted from some of the things that were going on. It allowed me to focus on being in that moment and taking it all in. Sometimes it can be a little stressful traveling. It gets a little difficult. I didn't have that for a year. I think it rejuvenated me in a lot of ways. In order for me to move to the next chapter, there's some things I needed to learn. Some lessons I needed to get. I've gotten those and I'm still trying to find a little more. Trying to enjoy life."

As touring returns, "I'm excited to be able to play the music and open it up and see where else we can go with it," Garrett says. "Because that's usually what happens. Sometimes you record. And it's not quite there. It's a blueprint of where the possibilities are. And then as you start to play them, they start to take on another life."

He adds, as an example, "listening to Miles [Davis] and playing different different things after awhile. I was with Miles for five and a half years and I played 'Human Nature' for five and a half years. After awhile, you have to find another way to express that same composition. Eventually it's unfolding. You kind of go to different places... Sometimes we get there and sometimes we don't get there."

Garrett has a large musical palette. So he has a lot to draw on when he experiments with his compositions. He has a very funk side [Check out Simply Said, Warner Bros., 1999] and also a penchant for Latin music and influences from other cultures. But in his heart, it is all just music and it all has value.

"When I was growing up my mother was listening to Motown—The Temptations, and Smokey Robinson, The Spinners and people like that. My father was listening to Stanley Turrentine and Maceo Parker and Joe Henderson. I never thought of it as being different, that genres are different. Because I just heard all the music in the household, from classical to free music to R&B. I never separate them," he says. "Of course, I thought jazz was more challenging. But I always felt like it was always music... People think that it might be commercial. But, I love melody. I love harmony, so I always try to write melodies that appeal to me... I want to write songs like that. I want to write songs where people can remember the melody no matter what genre it is. I think of all of them as being the same kind of music. What I try to do is be as authentic with all those genres as possible. If I'm playing funk, I want to be authentic. If I'm playing Afro-Cuban, I want to be as authentic and respectful to that music as possible. So I think that's why I never think of them as something different. Are they challenging? Yes. For sure."

Garrett is from Detroit, one of the country's very musical cities. His stepfather was an amateur saxophonist and jazz fan and his biological father was a church deacon and singer. The presence of music was natural and normal. As a child he would sit by his stepfather's sax, "not because of the sound of it. Because of the smell of the case," he recalls. "I remember him giving me my first saxophone—it was plastic—for Christmas. Later he gave me a real saxophone.

"The feeling that I got from playing music, I just loved to play. It was really just about what level it would be on. I don't take music for granted. I feel it's a blessing to be able to play music. So I never took it for granted. I always wanted to play music... I want to write music to uplift people. I want to motivate people. Then in turn, if I'm not in that place, I want the same people to motivate me. It's important. I'm still enjoying it. I'm having fun."

Though Garrett was playing sax in elementary school with people he knew, he didn't take it seriously until high school. He wanted to go to Cass Tech, a prominent musical school in the area where there were instruments and people interested in playing who could get together. Music started to intrigue Garrett more. Around that time he encountered Bill Wiggins, a teacher who had extensive experience as a professional. He became a key mentor in young Garrett's life.

"He said, 'You don't have to go to Cass Tech. I will teach you,'" Garrett recounts. "Individually, I joined a band. But I didn't have that kind of direction like musicians got from a big music program. It was a small band, small community. But it was good for me because it was preparing me for something bigger."

There was also Marcus Belgrave, a renowned trumpeter in Detroit. Belgrave was also someone who took mentorship seriously and helped a significant number of Motor City musicians who went on to make their mark in jazz.

"Everybody knew him because he had worked with Ray Charles," says Garrett. "When I was hanging out with Marcus, I met Freddie Hubbard. I met Thad Jones and Mel Lewis. I had all these opportunities just by hanging with Marcus. Marcus is the pillar of the community in Detroit. He helped people like Geri Allen and Robert Hurst and James Carter. A lot of musicians who came through there, they came through Marcus." So there was a scene, but not really in the school system. It was hanging out with Marcus after school. "We're going to Ann Arbor, Michigan, playing in the 251 Band. That was a big band. We were playing in this concert band, creating that same atmosphere. We had to create it."

As he became more interested in music and the saxophone, Hank Crawford, Grover Washington, Jr. and Cannonball Adderley were his main influences. The he started checking out Charlie Parker and people like Sonny Criss.

Garrett wanted to go to Berklee College of Music, but didn't get accepted. (He has since received an honorary doctorate from the school). But In the summer after high school, he got asked by Mercer Ellington, who was directing his late father's organization, to join that orchestra. Garrett thought it would be short-lived, but ended up there for a few years, gaining valuable experience. When the band was in New York City, Garrett would go to clubs and check things out. He began meeting people like Marcus Miller, Lenny White and Jaco Pastorius.

The Ellington Orchestra "was a real education. I couldn't ask for anything better. I had opportunity to play with Cootie Williams. I'm not sure how many musicians of my generation can say that," he says. "I was really excited. I got a chance to play with Cootie and other people like Harold Minerve and Norris Tunney, who were proteges of Johnny Hodges. So that was a first-hand experience. These guys were taking me under their wings and teaching me music. It wasn't college, per sae. But it was the Duke Ellington School of Music. The Freddie Hubbard School of Music. The Miles Davis School of Music. The Woody Shaw School of Music. All of those schools of music. I got a chance to play with Dannie Richmond and we were playing the music of Charles Mingus. A lot of the music people were learning in school, I got to play with the musicians first hand. I just didn't do it the same way. But I still studied even though I didn't go to university or college. I was still studying on my own."

Garrett's experiences over the years—all building blocks and all providing invaluable knowledge and experience—is well beyond most people who came out of the major formal jazz institutions.

"I think about it sometimes and say, 'Wow. That's an interesting history.' That's when you count your blessings. You know you're fortunate because you got a chance to play with those musicians. They share the information with you. And I do the same thing with my musicians. We share that information and knowledge. I think that's how it's supposed to go," he says.

"I have mentored a lot of musicians. There's a whole bunch of drummers like Chris Dave, Eric Harland, Brian Blade. I introduced Brian Blade actually, on a CD for Warner Brothers called Black Hope (1992). That's the first time people heard Brian. There's a whole bunch of guys who've come through my band. Not only drummers. I'm doing my part. When musicians are around me, I want to help as much as possible. Because that's what I had."

What he had were many hands-on lessons along the incredible path that put him with the great elders. With Blakey, he says, "I learned how to do a solo. You had, like two choruses to tell your story. And the first one, you kind of punch it around a little bit. By the second one, you got to make a statement." Contrast that with Miles, "then I'm getting 10-minute solos. So it was one extreme to the next one. Blakey was really teaching us how to be a band leader. He was teaching us how to write music. He was teaching us how to become the next generation of musicians. You could write the music for the band. And then you learn how to build solos. And I think that's what helped shape a lot of musicians like Wallace Roney, Terrence Blanchard, Wynton Marsalis and Branford Marsalis. Even Freddie (Hubbard) and those guys. They had opportunities. Blakey had a school. And Miles had a school. Miles' school was different than Blakey's. I was fortunate to be in both those schools."

With Miles, "I couldn't ask for anything more. Because for five and a half years I got a chance to hear Miles play." Garrett says there was little instruction about what would happen in a show and he had to adapt. That was a lesson. "Miles played a musical line and I played with that. He played another musical line. I played with that. That became part of the show. But when I think about it, what a way to learn the language first hand with Miles playing these lines. Like wow, this is almost like the African tradition. He's teaching me the music I wrote for Sounds from the Ancestors. It was great. Everything was great with Miles. I got a chance to see how he treats musicians and how to be a band leader.

"And musically. I remember one time he was telling me that he told Herbie Hancock, 'Herbie. Please play all of my stuff and the wrong notes too.' What? What wrong notes? To me they were never wrong notes. They were masterpieces in the way he'd hold the music and so on. It was great. I cherish that time. That's the longest tenure that I had with any band. Being with Miles for five and a half years and to hear that language every night is a blessing."

Garrett's first recording came out in 1984, Introducing Kenny Garrett on CrissCross. "At the time I was playing in five different bands. I was playing in my own band. Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, OTB, Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw. That was before Miles. I've always had that concept of wanting to be a leader."

He played with Miles right into 1991, which was the end. Davis died in September of that year. After that, Garrett pushed fully into a solo career which has produced superb bands and outstanding music. (He did break from that when he joined Chick Corea's Five Peace Band in 2008, with guitarist John McLaughlin, bassist Christian McBride and either Blade or Vinnie Colaiuta on drums).

"I couldn't really make the push [into a solo career during the Miles years]. I did do gigs though. After that, I ended up playing with Marcus Miller for awhile. Then after that, that's when I kind of made the push. There were challenges with that. But I learned a lot in the process. I was down for the challenge of trying to become a band leader. Even though there were guys like Blakey and Miles and Freddie I had learned from, there were certain things I didn't want to do and some things I wanted to do. So I take all those different things and try adding to those ideas and deciding how I want to approach music," Garrett explains.

"I remember Cootie Williams and Miles always telling me to write my own compositions. 'Write your own compositions. Write your own compositions.' I was at the piano once and Cootie Williams heard me and he said, 'Hey Cookie Baby (his nickname for Garrett), write your own music....' To have someone of that talent giving you great information. Not only hearing it but listening to it. I'm glad I was humble enough to share it. There's no way to even put it into words. It's for real, that's for sure."

Garrett is taking all his lessons, all his experience and all of his own ideas into the future. He is open minded, and smart enough to know that learning is a lifelong process. People can expect different twists to the things that will emerge from this excellent musician moving forward.

"I'm always writing. I have a whole bunch of music I've written," he says. "Sometimes it doesn't fit with conception that I'm working with. I have a couple songs that I might record. But I'm not really moving quickly away from this project. I'm trying to let the music live for awhile. And then after that, maybe from that experience, I'll come up with something else, another concept. I don't think there's a rush... We'll let the music kind of breathe and try some different things. From that, I might create something else."

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