*I’ve never quite understood why the legendary Kenny G didn’t get more props.
I’ve been a fan of his since 1986, after a single listen to “Don’t Make Me Wait For Love” from his breakthrough Duotones album. That collection also included “Songbird” which established him — with his sublime saxophone — as a force to be reckoned with on R & B, pop, and Adult Contemporary radio.
The artist formerly known as Kenneth Gorelick went on to release hit after hit and several multiplatinum albums, eventually becoming the world’s best selling instrumentalist. A couple of his projects broke records that remain unchallenged: his 1992 Breathless set still stands as the best selling instrumental album of all time, having sold over 12 million copies. That album’s follow-up, 1994’s Miracles, has sold an unprecedented eight million copies to-date, dwarfing the sales of all other Christmas albums. The artist regularly collaborated with artists like Smokey Robinson, Whitney Houston, Peabo Bryson, Toni Braxton, and Babyface.
Kenny G was on top of the world, but he was also behind music that acquired the “smooth jazz” moniker somewhere along the way, and with that label his impact on the music industry, and his credibility as an artist, was questioned in some circles.
It never made an ounce of sense to me. Artists like him are the reason I put my trumpet down — for good — in junior high school, as I knew I’d never be a Kenny G or a Herb Alpert. I am proudly one of the millions who bought his albums, and I still play several of them on a regular basis, so I’ve never understood where his critics were coming from.
As it turns out, Kenny was confused by it, too.
“I don’t know if there’s much merit on putting labels on anything,” Kenny G, 60 told me recently by phone, as he prepared for a series of concerts in northern California. “With ‘smooth jazz,’ people just needed a label. It wasn’t the kind of jazz people were used to hearing, but anytime you play something different instrumentally, it is what it is. I thought I was just playing a form of jazz that was unique to the way I was hearing how the music should be. I never thought much about the labels. I just thought about making the music.”
Millions of fans couldn’t have been happier about Kenny putting his effort and energy into the music, as they bought his records and concert tickets in droves. And long after the “smooth jazz” format has faded from the radio airwaves and our memories, Kenny G is still selling out venues all over the world.
“My band and I have been playing together for 30 years, so we kinda know the music,” Kenny laughed. “We do a mixture of music from some of our older records, and we do a couple of new songs. We might do one from my latest album, Brazilian Nights.”
You heard the man. Brazilian Nights — 2015’s scintillating collection of latin-inspired songs, and quite an artistic leap from “Songbird” and Duotones. Over 30 years into his career, Kenny continues to surprise his audience.
“That’s one of the goals,” Kenny shared. “The other is to challenge myself and do things that are interesting to me and that I haven’t done before.”
Kenny is playing a number of dates this spring, and later in the year he’ll be touring with another jazz legend, George Benson.
For those who think Kenny G’s repertoire is solely of the easy listening variety, check out funky cuts like “G-Bop” from his Breathless collection. Quite simply, it smokes.
“‘G-Bop’ was such a cool song! I was up in a studio called The Record Plant in Sausalito, with a guy that I write a lot of music with, Walter Afanasieff. He and I walk by this one room, and I hear this rhythm coming out of it. One of Walter’s assistants, Dan Shea, was working on this tune, and I brought my horn in and said ‘I’m gonna write the melody for this right now! Let’s write this song!’ So the three of us finished writing it together, and it became ‘G-Bop.’ It is such a cool piece of music.”
Kenny has started work on his first album in a few years, with a cover of Sade’s “Smooth Operator” that he hopes to release this fall. He’s taking his time on the album, as he always does. As much as we might love more music from him, there’s a reason the legend takes so much time between projects.
“A lot of thought, a lot of care goes into the music,” Kenny reflects. “We don’t just churn it out. That’s why I don’t make many records. Every note, every song has to be something super, super special.”
The artist works hard on keeping it all “super special.” In fact, he still practices playing the saxophone three hours every day.
“I just figure the more hours I put in on a consistent basis…there’s no other way for it to go than for me to get better,” Kenny surmised. “You can’t get worse, and you should get a lot better! We’re not going to have unbelievable nights every night when we perform, nobody can, but your chances go up a lot if you practice on regular basis.”
The legend still practices three hours a day. If I’d chatted with him with I was in junior high, maybe I wouldn’t have hung up my own horn!
“I really have always enjoyed practicing, because I really like being great at something,” Kenny continues. “Honestly, when you’re really good at something, it’s fun. I like that feeling, and when I’m onstage I want to know that I’ve done everything I can to stay as good as I can on my craft. When you touch people with your music, there’s no better feeling.”
Information on Kenny G’s upcoming performances is at kennyg.com.