PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Kenny Garrett: Happy People

Maurice Bottomley

Kenny Garrett

Happy People

Label: Warner Bros.
US Release Date: 2002-03-12
UK Release Date: 2002-04-01

LListening to Kenny Garrett's sweet-tough sax on Happy Days, his seventh outing for Warners, it is tempting to speculate on what might have happened if smooth jazz had not appeared on the scene. Instead of two separate schools (late modernist and smooth),we might instead be used to hearing more albums like this one. Happy Days, while not short on experimentation and post-bop edginess, leans heavily towards warm, soul-tinged fusion. It is not a smooth album as such but may find itself competing more in that market than in that of its rarefied and increasingly distant cousin.

Indeed, it strays far enough down the populist road to have made the "serious" critics' hit list. The taste-guardians have been busy and reviews have echoed to a dismissive mantra -- "Cloying", "Bland", "Commercial", etc. etc. . . . However, to my coarsened ears, Garrett and Co. display an improvisatory drive that will test the bravery any standard smooth jazz radio programmer. This is jazz, do not believe some of what you may have read.

Despite the rush to condemn, Garrett has attained enough respect and industry clout not to worry overly and I think, if the radio stations of whichever ilk back him, he could attract plenty of new listeners while retaining the support of the less Leninist of former devotees. If he does, jazz will be the winner, for it might encourage a few other more formulaic musicians to stretch out a little. At its best, this album shows that you can be melodic, funky, and pop-friendly without sacrificing boldness and imagination.

It is true that such is the easy, feel-good flow that you hardly notice that Happy Days is actually awash with "real" jazz's requisite triumvirate -- 6/8 time signatures, Far Eastern motifs and some unrestrained (if not exactly "free") soloing. Garrett and producer Marcus Miller manage to keep things in groove-mode to the extent that someone who wants their sax playing no more demanding than Grover or Gerald Albright should find much to enjoy, while demonstrating a creativity and a diversity that ought to (but won't) placate those who are keener on the experienced altoist's earlier, more "orthodox" efforts.

Choice of producer, material and fellow musicians for such a project are crucial and, in this case, are appropriate to the task and prime reasons for its success. Both Miller's distinctive bass and his recent track record do not currently go down well with the cognoscenti, but here his playing is excellent and his production well suited to the aims of the disc. The material includes down-the-line jazz-funk and soul-flavoured uplift, incorporates some Korean and Japanese themes, takes in the odd winsome ballad and finishes with an extended post-Bop chaser. None of it is particularly groundbreaking and as a package it is sometimes too unthreatening, but monotone and mindless it most certainly is not.

Garrett's quartet consists of himself (alto and soprano sax), Vernell Brown (piano), Chris Dave (drums), and Charnett Moffett (acoustic bass). Apart from Miller, guests include guitarist Randy Razz and trumpeter Patches Stewart. Vibesman Bobby Hutcherson and ex-Zhane soulstress Jean Norris make the most telling appearances. These two indicate some of the problems this album has had with more staid commentators and some of the prejudices underpinning those comments.

Hutcherson plays on four tracks and is exemplary -- eloquent and graceful but always airily funky. Even the most hostile have (rightly) praised his contribution. The critics see Hutcherson as representing "genuine" jazz and must therefore have very selective memories. This album seems to me to be exactly the type of project Hutcherson engaged in, especially in the early seventies -- jazzy but open to soul, funk, and "world" influences. Garrett obviously hero-worships Hutcherson and he is in many ways the ideal role-model for the younger man, their tone, attitude, and goals are very similar.

Whereas Hutcherson still has the official seal of approval, it is doubtful whether Zhane's "Request Line" or "Hey Mr. DJ" feature in many jazz buffs top tens. Nonetheless Zhane always had a barely suppressed jazz side to them and Jean Norris does a sterling job on the title track, lending an already upbeat tune a really joyful finish. Her contribution to "Song No. 8" is a little middle-of-the-road but then so is the tune, a so-so revamp of "Cherokee". The opprobrium heaped upon the vocal numbers is unfair and typifies that strange and doomed desire to quarantine jazz from other African-American forms.

Let us hope the opposite takes place and soul fans are drawn by Norris' name and Miller's pedigree to check out the set -- and maybe shed a few of their own anti-jazz sentiments. They should certainly find the funky "Song for DiFang" to their taste. Taiwanese inspired as it might be, this sounds like classic fusion, with Garrett and Miller getting the meaty most out of the tune. Then they mare care to try the Brubeck-as-done-by-Miles "Tango in 6" which motors along most efficiently and will take them nicely into the gentle "Halima's Story" and some expert modal stylings (plus a truly exquisite solo from Hutcherson). By this time, if not hooked, they will surely be sufficiently impressed to realise there is more to the music than Kirk Whalum or Najee.

Elsewhere they will find a fine (if completely inexplicable) mid-tempo hard bop tribute to Tiger Woods ("Hole in One") and a moderate one to Thelonious Monk ("Monk-ing Around"). "Thessalonika" is a wistful, minor key urban soundscape with another dominant statement from Hutcherson, while a confidant "Ain't Nothing but the Blues" has again a touch of Miles about it. The album closes with the freest track, "Brother B. Harper", which sees Garrett at his most aggressive. It has fire and much panache but, probably out of sheer perversity (the jazz people exempt this track from their condemnation), I think this is the least interesting segment of the disc.

The Asian theme that bubbles away throughout gets its fullest expression in the tripartite suite, "Asian Medley". Largely based on Korean melodies it is lovely and serene, smooth in a positive sense. I have to say, speaking from complete ignorance, that the medley has a distinct Irish-Scottish air and if it were called "Hibernian Medley" I would have not raised an eyebrow. If there is a hitherto undiscovered link between the folk forms then Garrett has accidentally brought it to light. Either way, the results are very likeable and allow the group leader particularly to display his full range of skills.

Variety, listener-friendliness, and plenty of fine playing may not appease those after a more jagged or "out there" experience, but a sizeable audience, from whatever branch of the jazz world, should, if they have any fondness at all for melody and line, find something here that accords with their definition of good music. Happy People is unashamedly positive and optimistic music and that in itself can bring problems. Garrett does utilise some of the mannerisms associated with safe soul and smooth jazz -- but judiciously and generally to good effect. And if you're still not sure, there's always Bobby Hutcherson to clinch the deal.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.


Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.


'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.


ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.


The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.


Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.