Listening to Kenny G

Kenny G and the Problem With Art That Asks Very Little of Us

A culture that digs the surface level in art is understandable. But a culture that prizes schtick and stunt and a pretty face over substance is problematic.

Listening to Kenny G
Penny Lane

It’s very early December, and Christmas music—that most nostalgia-filled of formats—is beginning. I am listening to music from the new recording by saxophonist Kenny G, who happens to have made a mint recording holiday tunes. I also just watched Listening to Kenny G, the new “Music Box” HBO documentary about Kenny G, directed by Penny Lane (Hail Satan and many more).

Also, to be clear, I am featured in this film as one of the choruses of critical voices who aren’t huge fans of the G Force.

More From the Smoothie King

On New Standards, Kenny G’s stated goal is to create music that sounds like the ballads that jazz musicians recorded in the 1950s and ’60s, but without modern jazz improvising. His breathy soprano saxophone outlines a pretty melody on “Emeline”, acoustic piano and strings giving him a lush backing. There is no improvising or risk-taking, but it’s pretty if you don’t mind things that are saccharine sweet. G’s horn trembles with feeling. His is the Hallmark movie of saxophone sounds—and those movies always take place around the holidays.

The other track already out “Legacy”, “features” the late tenor saxophonist Stan Getz. To be honest, I don’t know what this means. Getz has been dead since 1991, so he obviously didn’t play this G-penned melody. In some manner, digital samples of notes recorded by Getz were cobbled together to create this track. Getz not only didn’t consent to duet with the G Force, but he never phrased this melody, he never connected these tones, he never put his musicianship into this work. There’s more to playing the saxophone than the digital recreation of a tone.

“Legacy” doesn’t sound like something Getz would have played, even if KG claims Getz wrote the tune “with his sound in mind”. To my ear, it sounds utterly uninformed by Stan Getz’s art or, for that matter, the ballads that jazz legends recorded in the ’50s and ’60s. On Bill Simmons’ podcast, G told the host—who is the executive producer of the Music Box series on HBO that features the 90-minute film on Kenny G made by documentarian Penny Lane—that he loves those tunes “recorded by Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, John Coltrane” but didn’t like the style of their soloing after they played the melodies. On these two tracks, at least, KG skips any improvising at all. Problem solved.

Why Critique Art That Asks So Little?

This is hardly the first time I’ve written an exasperated critique of Kenny G. In fact, Lane interviewed me for several hours for Listening to Kenny G, where I appear beside fellow critic Ben Ratliff and two sharp academic critics in the film. Collectively, we try to explain that we have nothing against Mr. Gorelick or the people who love his music. But, as people who think deeply about the American music tradition that runs from Louis Armstrong to Stan Getz to Terri Lyn Carrington and onward, we don’t have much positive to say about the richness of Kenny G’s music. I particularly tip my hat to Professor Jason King, who sharply articulates in the film the degree to which Kenny G has simply repurposed a style that was mastered by Black musicians—Grover Washington, Jr. comes most obviously to mind. Lane asks her subject about this, and it is one moment when his ‘aw shucks’ persona comes off as clueless and entitled.

We understand that G’s music is very popular. Not all popular things are shallow—we also know that. But if you ask food critics about the quality of a 7-Eleven chimichanga, are they “elitist” or wrong if they tell you that it is a bland meal, neither good for you nor all that tasty? When Lane asked me to be a part of her film, I understood that I was being “cast” in the antagonist role. And I understood that in 2021 American sympathies are not with “elite jazz critics” who prefer their music complex or even atonal. We remain in a moment of decided cultural “poptimism” in which the greatest sin for any artist is too much earnest ambition.

Many reviews of Listening to Kenny G run something like this: Hey, I don’t like his music either—but why do critics spend so much time and energy hating on the guy? He’s sweet, and he doesn’t really even consider his music to be “jazz”. If people like that stuff, it’s cool! Some reviews perceive that the film is set up to support this point of view—that it lets me and my fellow critics take aim at him and then basically shows him to be a hard-working guy who just wants to make his music. Don’t be such snobs, critics! Sure, he played some sax on top of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”, but Natalie Cole sang along with her deceased dad on “Unforgettable”. Ease up!

But then Kenny G turns around and co-bills Stan Getz on fluffer-nutter sandwich of a song like “Legacy” (and, OMG, he actually calls it Legacy!) through a form of digital sampling. And he argues that he is improving on the music of Getz and Davis, and Coltrane.

(For the record, in the film, Lane catches G unable to recognize a photograph of Thelonious Monk. This is from a guy who prides himself on preparation and hard work.)

So, with all due respect to Penny Lane and her marvelous film, let me explain at some greater length why Kenny G’s music deserves critique.

It’s Not True That Kenny G Isn’t Trying to Be “Jazz”

When folks ask me to lay off the G Force, the argument is often—Hey, the guy doesn’t claim to be playing “jazz”. Smooth jazz is really just instrumental pop of some sort.

But the canniness of G is that he knows he gets to have it both ways. “Jazz” isn’t popular, so avoiding that trap is smart. But being connected to “jazz” confers something valuable on the other side—a weight of seriousness, a vintage quality. And with New Standards, G is doing what Rod Stewart and many other pop stars have done. As his stardom fades, he has associated himself with “jazz” history to class up his pretty noodling. He is “honored” to “duet” with Stan Getz. In his Bill Simmons podcast interview, he repeatedly cites a compliment he received from Miles Davis (who, he also recounts, punked him by having him open for the trumpeter for one show, then close another show, only to find 97% of the audience gone). Kenny G will take his “jazz” associations when they are convenient. After all, that “duet” with Louis Armstrong on “What a Wonderful World” may have sent money to charity, but it also implied that Kenny and Louis were somehow equals.

But it’s true: he doesn’t really play music in Armstrong’s tradition at all. His performances are devoid of swing, polyrhythm, jazz harmony, communication among bandmates in the moment, the individual daring of improvisation, and interaction with music history. It’s not elitist to agree with Kenny G that his music doesn’t have jazz DNA.

I’m totally cool with G making a bazillion dollars making innocuous background music. But if he implies that it’s part of the acclaimed history that includes Armstrong and Getz, then people should understand that this is not the case. And that the winking “I’m not ‘jazz’, but you realize that I am improving jazz, don’t you, with my good friend Stan Getz along for the ride” is some sorry stuff.

Empty Ideas are Still Empty

Okay, the question remains, why be upset about G’s empty calories? Isn’t there room in the world for simple pleasures? Not every book has to be War and Peace.

People don’t like critics bashing G, suggesting that they’re “smarter than” all his record buyers.
My point is not that Kenny G’s fans are deficient. They like that the music is pleasant (not dissonant, relaxing, melodic). It’s no sin just to want some pleasant background music. Sometimes you just need some mac ‘n’ cheese, a McDonald’s hamburger. It’s okay. Settle down, critics! 

I know that bland, empty, “pretty” things have market value and can be hugely popular when properly promoted and lightning strikes. But that doesn’t make the stuff good for the culture. When Kenny G’s music (and his countless, equally bland imitators) pushes more robust and valuable music out of the market, we all suffer.

A steady diet of that smushy stuff—whether you’re talking about McDonald’s burgers or Kenny G’s music—is not good for you. It’s not nutritious; it doesn’t contain anything that does more than soothe one. Soothing is okay, and it’s not Kenny’s fault that his soothing music is well-liked.

But as the film goes on, the genial G is increasingly replaced by an arrogant guy. He boasts about how good he is at everything (play a tricky lick on his soprano, golf, flying airplanes, learning social media, even being “the best dad”), which culminates in the twin assertions that his assertion that (a) his future soundtrack music will win an Oscar, and (b) that he may make a “classical” album what will cause people to confuse him with Bach, Beethoven, and Brahams.

Kenny G may seem like he is “in on the joke” at times, but does he understand that his work is little more than pleasantly empty? It may be inoffensive, but it’s not wholly innocuous. When a culture overfills its plate with that kind of food, the body suffers.

He May Have Gotten More People to Listen to “Real” Jazz, Right?

This point, noted by Jason King in the film, seems undeniable. I hereby concede that Kenny G’s music may be properly thought of and righteously credited as a set of training wheels or a pair of “pull-ups” that could move someone along to big-kid underwear.

There’s Little More Cynical Than a Culture That, Mainly, Prizes Beauty

I like pretty things too. I understand that movie stars are good-looking in addition to having acting skills. But Paul Newman could act. Brad Pitt has chops. Penelope Cruz is talented. And while Grover Washington, Jr. had a sweet sound and made recordings chock-a-block with slinky, pop-ish grooves, his sound, his phrasing, and his approach to improvising carried forward the DNA of his tradition. Like Whitney Houston—a pop diva whose music was shiny with Yamaha DX-7 cheese of that era—Washington’s kind of “beauty” was infused with history and authentic soul. You could take the Whitney out of her gospel roots, but those roots made her music more than just empty pleasure.

Kenny G, by contrast, boasts in the documentary that he is unaware of the roots of “jazz”. His stuff is like a Whitney Houston record without the killer vocal performance, the sound that is history, the cry of culture.

When G’s old band leader from high school recalls the moment when the young saxophonist found “his sound”, he describes the kid having a solo moment in which he played just one very long note, showing off his shaky circular breathing. But taking that moment (and the other moments in the film where Kenny holds a note to inspire oooooohs from his audience) at face value: Kenny G is a trick shot, a stunt, a surface.

A culture that digs the surface is understandable. But a culture that prizes schtick and stunt and a pretty face over substance is problematic.

In a World Where Everything Is Subjective and There Are No Standards of Excellence, Ease and Profitability Become the Only Measure of Value

In the end, there is a public conversation about Kenny G because he sold a lot of records. When asked why “Songbird” became a huge hit, Kenny says in the film that it’s because the record executive Clive Davis called in favors to get the record played.

I understand that no amount of Clive Davis favors could have made Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” sell millions. G himself tells us in the film that people start to glaze over when he plays a version of Coltrane’s “Naima” in an attempt to educate them about “jazz”. Kenny says that he didn’t calculate his success by deciding to dumb down his music for sales. It just so happens, he claims, that what’s in his heart is very popular. Let’s accept that as true.

But it remains that the machinery of US capitalism heard “Songbird”, literally product-tested it in focus groups, and decided that it would sell like hotcakes. And it did.

The value of “art” may be subjective, but it is equally valid that the value of things that are incredibly popular is not certain. Profitability isn’t actual value. We critics—whether it’s me pointing out that G’s music is the equivalent of a basketball spinning on someone’s finger or Pat Metheny noting that G’s playing is uninventive and ignorant to the history it wants so desperately to be a part of—have a right to our voice. You don’t have to agree with us, but neither do you have to “agree” with the market.

The debate is worth having. And I contend that the only argument that matters is about the real value of the expression, not its market share. Kenny G is the best-selling instrumental artist in the history of recorded music. That is undebatable. But those sales shouldn’t shut down the honest back-and-forth.

Listening to Kenny G is a terrific film. It invites debate about the standards we apply to art in our culture. It neither condemns nor endorses the guy’s music, even if Lane has said she rather likes the man himself.

I predict that her film will be watched long after Kenny G’s music has lost relevance.

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