Beyond Walls

An Interview with Kenny Garrett

by Katrina-Kasey Wheeler

23 September 2008

The ever-changing saxophonist pins down a performance with another legend and explains how that's all just part of the process.

Saxophonist Kenny Garrett rapidly ascended to great heights upon graduating from high school. Since then, he has performed and recorded with numerous jazz legends that most musicians can only dream of, including Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, McCoy Tyner, and Herbie Hancock. His idiosyncratic sound is a shifting fusion of many styles. Consider his work on the Beyond the Wall album, which was inspired by Chinese music and philosophy. He has released eleven albums as a bandleader and has garnered numerous Grammy nominations for his inspired work. With his new release Sketches of MD: Live at the Iridium featuring Pharoah Sanders, Garrett calls in Sanders to help him further expand his sound and finally captures and event he’d been working towards.

Garrett grew up listening to various types of music that his father would play in the house. His father’s influence has had an obvious affect on his vision as an artist and his love for different styles of music. Garrett shares, “My father played the tenor saxophone and I used to sit around and listen to him practice. I was drawn to the saxophone’s case; I was mesmerized by the smell. Eventually I started playing the saxophone.” He became inspired by some of the jazz greats of that time but says, “In the beginning it was my father that inspired me. Then I started to get into people like Hank Crawford, Grover Washington Jr., and Charlie Parker.”

It was a remarkable accomplishment for Garrett at the age of eighteen to perform with seasoned and consummate performers. “I think that my first big break was playing with the Duke Ellington Orchestra then directed by his son, Mercer Ellington. Right out of high school, I had a great opportunity to play with people like Cootie Williams.”

Garrett had wanted to record a show where he played with Pharoah Sanders. “[Sketches of MD] was really done so that my performance with Pharoah Sanders could be documented,” he explains. “We had done Beyond the Wall, which was nominated for a Grammy—I wanted to have us playing together documented since we missed that opportunity. I decided to write a few new songs and see what happened, that was really the premise.”

This time around, the timing was right. “The first time we played together was at the Blue Note in New York. Every time we played it was special, but we never documented it. It really wasn’t about anything other than that. I just really wanted to capture that moment.” Garrett could have easily recorded a second installment of Beyond the Wall, but, true to form, he wanted to go in another direction, to explore different musical avenues. As with Miles Davis, Garett’s music constantly changes and evolves.

Sketches of MD, as the title suggests, is a definite nod to Davis’s album Sketches of Spain. Featuring musicians Benito Gonzales, Nat Reeves, and Jamire Williams, Sketches of MD balances improvisation and the exploration of melody. It is relaxed, yet it still has the feel of a live album, complete with an enraptured audience. Like Davis, whom he is so often associated with, Garrett is a master of melody and musical exploration. As he says, “When you are improvising you don’t really set out to do any one thing, it just kind of happens.”

His use of effects on the saxophone certainly achieved the overall objective he was aiming for, and he says of the title track, “I’m playing a lot of ‘colors’ on this one. It’s not about improvisation as much as the melodies. At the end when we break it down and do the free-for-all thing where I re-harmonize the chords over the bass line that is my take on my experiences with Miles. It wasn’t planned. It just flowed that way.”

Playing with Miles Davis came about as though it was predestined. “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 and of course, I was interested. Miles had basically said that he was looking for me because he had seen me perform at Birdland in Germany—I was playing with Woody Shaw, Dizzy Gillespie, and Freddie Hubbard. It was meant to happen. I guess he was looking for me and I was looking for him!”

Although he was influenced by the way that Miles Davis approached his music, Garrett’s time performing with Davis allowed him to find and explore his way musically while gaining invaluable insight. “I think the main thing is to be myself; to play music that I hear and feel, as opposed to what other people might think of it. By the time you figure out what you are doing you will be doing something else—which is true. I think as an artist you always have a lot of ideas and are looking for ways to express them.”

Garrett was formerly recording for Warner Bros. Records, and has now decided to release his newest project on Mack Avenue Records. He explains, “A lot of the bigger companies have an idea of what you should do and how it should be done. Mack Avenue is allowing me to do what I want to do and they are open to different ideas. They are an independent label with big ideas.” The ability to express his creativity is of utmost importance, and the move to another label was inevitable.

Amidst Garrett’s tour to promote his new album, he will also be involved in a tour with some of the most talented musicians in the business today. “I am definitely going to tour as much as I can to promote Sketches of MD. I am also going to be touring with Chick Corea, Jon McLaughlin, Christian McBride, and Vinnie Colaiuta, and then I will be doing another record.” That tour is certain to be a celebration of not only expertise, but of discovery; each of these musicians is a pioneer within the jazz community. They are not afraid of taking chances with their music, and Garrett will be right in his element with these artists.

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