Via Larry Appelbaum’s Facebook notification, I see that Kenneth Gorelick, aka “Kenny G,” is 55 today. It’s a set-up for me to run the piece of mine that probably more people have seen than any other — an interview for the bn.com website on the occasion of a new recording called Paradise. The conversation transpired over 15 minutes as he was being driven in a limo to New York’s then-smooth-jazz station. It’s understating the case to say that I’m not a fan, but I did decide to play it straight and talk to him as I would any other musicians. Note Mr. Gorelick’s remarks on the provenance of Charlie Parker’s sobriquet, “Bird,” and then the follow-ups, down to his final response.
BTW: Check out Larry’s risible 2005 Before & After session with Misha Mengelberg, also a June 5th baby.
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TP: First of all, in your recordings, do you look for an overriding arc, an overriding theme? On the last one, Classics, you dealt with a lot of songbook material, lingua franca type of jazz material. But in general, is there an overriding story? If so, is there one for this?
KENNY G: Well, with Classics, that was obviously well thought out in terms of finding the material, using material that was already written by the great masters of these instruments. But normally, no, I don’t really do that. I just kind of start creating music, start writing songs, and little by little, an album takes shape. That’s pretty much how it works. I try to make it so that a person can listen from the beginning of song 1 until the end of song 11, and enjoy it, and not feel like there is one song that sticks out in any kind of a bad way.
TP: What do you mean by a “bad way”?
KENNY G: Well, you could have ten great instrumental songs, and if you put the wrong vocal song on there, maybe it’s a big hit or whatever, but if it sounds inappropriately placed, then I don’t like it, and I won’t do that. But instrumentally, you’ve got to keep everything sounding… It has to feel right. I don’t even know how to say that in other words.
TP: It’s intuitive.
KENNY G: Yeah, it’s intuitive. You can’t teach that type of stuff.
TP: Do you start from point one and then progress from that?
KENNY G: No. Not at all. I start with writing songs, and each song kind of happens when it happens, and pretty soon they start coming together, and at some point I may realize that there’s too many songs that are of this particular tempo. So I’m not going to write any more songs with that tempo. I’m going to try to write songs with a different tempo. Then I just do that until I feel like I’ve covered what I feel I need to cover for this particular record.
TP: How long did this project take from gestation to realization?
KENNY G: With Paradise, about a year. Maybe just a little bit more than a year.
TP: So from the first tune to the last tune, to recording it, to putting together the charts, getting in the studio, all of that took about a year.
KENNY G: A little bit more than that. More like a year-and-a-half.
TP: Do you remember which of the tunes came first?
KENNY G: Yes, “Spanish Night” was the first one.
TP: Do you listen very analytically to your records, to one in context of the last one, or is it that once one is done, that’s it, you’re done with it, on the next to the next thing?
KENNY G: I only listen analytically to my saxophone playing on each song, whether I’ve played exactly the way I want to play. But I don’t analyze how to write or what kind of albums to put out or anything like that.
TP: How do you feel your saxophone playing has evolved from when you emerged as a solo artist 20 years ago?
KENNY G: I think now I play a lot more in-tune. I think my sense of melody is a lot stronger, so that when I perform a song on my records, I think that instead of maybe kind of embellishing the melody… I’d probably embellish it more ten years ago than I do now. Now I play melodies a little more straight. But I’m much more in tune. I think that my songwriting has gotten a lot stronger in terms of just being able to do different kinds of things, not just the same kind of song. So I feel really good about it. I also think that my technique, in terms of playing note-for-note, is a lot better than it used to be. Because I’ve practiced. Anything you do over a period of ten years or twenty years or thirty years, you’re going to keep getting better.
TP: Do you continue to maintain an assiduous practice regimen?
KENNY G: Well, I do when I’m not performing a lot. I get burned out. So right now, when I’m out performing and doing TV shows, and I’m doing concerts in China next week, and things like that… I’m probably not going to practice too much in the near future, because I want to… I mean, I don’t need to. I like to practice. And if I’m going to perform, I want to keep myself fresh.
TP: What was the input of your producer, Walter Afanasieff, in creation of this album?
KENNY G: Walter is a fantastic piano player, and he knows a lot about sounds and things like that. We work on arrangements together. We’ll write songs together, then he’ll play the keyboard part, and then we use electronic drums and samples and things like that, and he knows how to program that stuff and play it in a way that’s very musical. I’ve worked with him on almost every record.
TP: When did you decide to make the soprano saxophone your primary instrumental voice? You used to play several different instruments on your albums.
KENNY G: True. I used to play more of the other horns as well. I don’t know. It’s just one of those things. It’s like a transformation, it’s a progression… I don’t know why. It’s not a conscious effort. I’m not trying not to play the other instruments. On this album, I probably experimented on every song with different songs, to see which horn was the right horn for the song. I really don’t care which horn I play. I like them all. I mean, I can play them all. But the soprano just seems to be the one that’s speaking my language right now, and I don’t know why that is.
TP: This isn’t the first album on which the soprano is the primary voice, though.
KENNY G: I play one song on tenor. But it’s mainly the one I use. It’s been that way probably for 10 or 15 years.
TP: Do you play the whole reed and woodwind family? Does that go back to your earlier training?
KENNY G: Yes. I mainly play the saxophones. I can play the clarinet and I can play flute, but I wouldn’t really like to do that publicly, because I’m not that good on those instruments.
TP: Had your career gone another way and you’d become a section musician, you might have elaborated on those more, but for being out front and expressing your personality, that’s the way you’ve gone. May I ask you a bit about your early influences on the instrument? Was or was not soprano the first horn you picked up?
KENNY G: It wasn’t. The alto was.
TP: According to the bio (and the stories are oft-told and must be boring to you), you heard the saxophonist on The Ed Sullivan Show, you took to it, you were in a good band program in Seattle, you were working by the age of 16 or so…
KENNY G: Yes. I’m lucky that I got a chance to do all that work early on. Because what it showed me when I was 16-17 years old was that I could hang in a professional world and be as good as the guys who are out there doing it for a living. I knew then that I was capable of making music a career. It’s like getting a real early picture that, “Okay, you can do this,” so I don’t have to worry about getting a job at a bank.
TP: But then you did become an accounting major.
KENNY G: Yeah. Well, I’m a numbers guy. I like numbers. I like studying things, and I enjoyed the learning process. Learning about music wasn’t interesting to me, but playing it has always been a joy. Learning about numbers and… I mean, I took calculus and economics and all that stuff. I just enjoy those subjects.
TP: Alan Greenspan, the head of the Federal Reserve was a jazz musician in the ’40s. He worked in the big bands. I think a lot of musicians are mathematically inclined.
KENNY G: I think that’s what they say. They say that if you learn to master an instrument, it’s the same brain as learning to figure out real hard calculus problems. I’ve been very good at that kind of stuff.
TP: Once you got past the beginning stages, was your process of learning an emulative process? Again, in the bios: You were studying Grover Washington, in college your band director turned you on to Bird and Coltrane and Sonny Rollins and these people. Were you accumulating vocabulary in a very systematic way, or learning things and applying them on gigs as necessary way or not?
KENNY G: You hit it right on the head with the first one. I start definitely being a copycat. That’s the way it was. I mean, I wanted to be the white Grover Washington, Junior, and I think I became the white Grover Washington, Junior. Then when I started to hear other saxophone players, like Sonny Rollins or Coltrane, I heard this different way of playing that I had not really had a lot of access to, I thought, “Well, I’ve got to learn these licks.” So I started to learn all that stuff. And pretty soon, after years of practicing this and practicing that, at some point I decided that my own style emerged, and I play the way that I play. It’s cool. Because any time, I know that if I wanted to, I could play the fast Coltrane licks, and if I need to play soulfully, I can always play in a certain kind of style. I’ve got a lot of different ways that I could play the saxophone, and I know that.
TP: For purposes of this website, I ask musicians to name favorite recordings. Would you mind naming one particular Grover Washington recording, one particular Coltrane recording, and one particular Charlie Parker recording for me?
KENNY G: The Grover Washington one that I listened to a lot when I was a kid was called “Inner City Blues.” As for Coltrane, of course, “Giant Steps” is the main one that he did, and he also did a rendition of “My Favorite Things.” To me, those are the famous John Coltrane songs.
With Charlie Parker, there are just so many different records. I don’t say this to be disrespectful, but when you listen to Charlie Parker, on pretty much any record he’s going to sound the same. He’s going to be unbelievable. He’ll be playing the fastest lines in that style… He was the fastest. Nobody played faster and more clean than him. Except that there was another saxophone player named Sonny Stitt. He was actually an almost exact duplicate of Charlie Parker, except he played it even cleaner. Charlie Parker would squeak a lot, and that’s why they called him Bird, because his reed would chirp.
TP: You think that’s why they called him Bird? That’s interesting.
KENNY G: That is why they called him Bird. That was the deal. He played so fast, and his reed would chirp because it…I don’t know, it just couldn’t take the speed of his fingers. But Sonny Stitt used to do it without the chirping thing, and played beautiful. But I don’t think he ever got the same accolades that Charlie Parker did, mainly because Charlie Parker was the first one, and then…
Anyway, I know a lot about that kind of music, and I admire those players. But I am not motivated to try to copy what they do or play in that style, because there’s no way that anybody can play better than Charlie Parker. You can’t. So what’s the point? I mean, even if I played every note exactly the way he played it, at exactly the speed, it’s not going to be better.
TP: Well, then you wouldn’t be you. You’d be a copycat.
KENNY G: Yeah. And you know, it’s fun as a technical exercise to take those tunes… Like a song called “Scrapple From The Apple.” You take that song, and you learn those licks, and that’s a great test of technique. You can learn the “Giant Steps” solo of John Coltrane’s. You learn that, that’s an unbelievable feat of showing-off, of technique. But that’s all it is to me. It’s not something that requires… I wouldn’t put my musical career as doing that. That doesn’t motivate me. But there’s a lot of people that like to do that. There’s a lot of guys who like to play these things, and they think that they are the best players in the world because they can play these John Coltrane things. I go, “Great, but I just feel like creating new stuff…whether you like it or no.”
TP: What do you think was Grover Washington’s legacy to us? You said your aspiration was to be the white Grover Washington, and you think you attained that goal.
KENNY G: Grover was the first guy to play in a certain kind of soulful way. He was a very melodic, soulful player, that still had enough bebop chops that he could… It’s hard to say. You’re asking me to describe things that I feel with words, and it’s hard, because…
TP: You’re doing a great job!
KENNY G: Well, I’m trying. Grover could play melodically, but he had a soulful sound to him, and nobody else ever played like that. He had a way of kind of slowly getting into notes. Like, he wouldn’t hit the note straight-on, but do what we call a gliss. Like, he would gliss into a note, and that was really cool. He did that better than anyone, and I liked that. I do that in my playing. In a different way, but I do a lot of that… Well, I don’t usually hit notes straight-on. I like to slide into them. That’s part of my style.
TP: Categories are a tricky thing. In the press release, it says you’ve bridged the worlds of jazz and contemporary and R&B and so on. Do you think of yourself as a jazz musician? Do you think of yourself as something other than a jazz musician?
KENNY G: Well, personally, I do think of myself as a jazz musician. But I grew up with the word “jazz”…to me, it meant instrumental and it meant improvisation. It really doesn’t matter the style. I don’t play the traditional Charlie Parker songs. But I do improvise and I do create with my instrument, and that to me is jazz. But there are people who use the word “jazz” only in a traditional sense, and they would be offended by that, and that’s fine. They should be, if that’s what they feel. But that’s just my opinion. I think everybody has to kind of decide what the word “jazz” means to them, and that’s fine. Just figure out what you think jazz is, and then if it fits into that category, it’s jazz, and if it doesn’t, it isn’t. It’s no big deal.
TP: What sort of things are in your personal listening rotation at this point? Do you listen to a lot of music?
KENNY G: No, I don’t listen to a lot of music at all. I’m actually more into… I don’t know. I’m just more into playing golf. It’s a great thing. I work on my music and I play my albums, and when I’m done, I’m done.