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Kenny Garrett Keeps Energy High

So long as there are musicians like Kenny Garrett around, jazz has nothing to worry about. Garrett’s one off those players who gets into the music, penning compelling compositions, then exploring them deeply and thoroughly with a band of hand-picked, like-minded musicians.

The saxophonist has a new CD out, Standard of Language, and, as on his 10 earlier discs, it contains plenty of hot burning and hard blowing, a few soulful ballads, and the prodigious talent of the young stars (or soon to be stars) of the day.

Standard of Language, released March 11 by Warner Brothers Records, features one standard ("What Is This Thing Called Love?") and eight Garrett originals, including his first three-part extended composition (the title track). Joining him on this foray are drummer Chris Dave a hip-hop player with serious jazz in his blood bassist Charnett Moffett, and pianist Vernell Brown.

JazzReview.Com caught up with Garrett in Seattle, Wash., where he was teaching a week-long residency of master classes, to wrap up with a Friday night performance.

JazzReview: What’s it feel like playing with a band that grooves so hard? How much fun is that?

Kenny Garrett: It’s a great thing. I’ve been fortunate enough to play with Kenny Kirkland and Jeff Watts and Chris Dave and Charnett [Moffett] and Vernell Brown. But most of the musicians, because they’ve heard me live or they’ve played with me, they know what to expect. It’s a beautiful thing to have musicians around who understand that. In order to play music, you’ve got to have guys who are on the same page as you.

JazzReview: I fully expected to hear applause after "Kurita Sensei." How do you achieve that energy? It’s not just here, but disc after disc.

Kenny Garrett: A lot of my fans really want me to do a live CD. You do CDs in the studio and there are always time restraints. For Standard of Language, I stretched it a little longer, instead of worrying about time constraints. We play longer to get the same energy. I’d love to do a live show, where we can really stretch it.

JazzReview: Where’s the energy come from?

Kenny Garrett: I feed the energy, but I think the musicians who come in know what I like. Art Blakey said you play a gig like you don’t know if you’re going to be around the next day. Just play, have fun. I try to give it up.

JazzReview: What about hip-hop moves you? How does Chris Dave move you?

Kenny Garrett: To me it’s the rhythm, the meat that they’re playing. That moves me the most. What I like about Chris Dave is ... he understands what I need from a drummer. He has enough information about playing in the tradition of jazz, I can take what he does and mold with the beat

JazzReview: How about Vernell Brown? Where’s he come from?

Kenny Garrett: He was a pianist I really thought had a lot of promise. When I first met him, he was playing differently. I had other piano players who were similar to what I was playing, but I wanted [Brown] to define his language more. I’ve been trying to get him to understand, to keep developing what your working on.

JazzReview: How old is Vernell?

Kenny Garrett: He’s in his 30s.

JazzReview: "XYZ" has some great solos. It reminded me of early ’80s Art Blakey.

Kenny Garrett: I definitely wasn’t thinking of Blakey on "XYZ," but whatever you hear, that’s cool. I was thinking of something more modern. I tried to make it as simple as possible, but it’s complex the melody and harmony.That’s what I was thinking about ... so the title is simple but the tune has some meat.

JazzReview: When did you play with Art Blakey?

Kenny Garrett: I played with Blakey in ’86 for about one year, then I joined Miles.

JazzReview: Who were the other Messengers at that time?

Kenny Garrett: Donald Brown on piano, Peter Washington on bass and I believe Wallace Roney. It was a good year, but at that time I was playing with five different bands OTB, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw and I had my own band. It was a strong period musically.

JazzReview: "Chief Blackwater" is about McCoy Tyner and there’s a lot of other McCoy on here.

Kenny Garrett: McCoy’s one of my men. I played with him at Yoshi’s [in Oakland, Calif.] for a week last year. It was such a great musical experience. I was pushing myself, and I was pushing McCoy and he was pushing me it was a great musical experience. To stand on the bandstand with one of the great musicians and to hear what you want to hear behind you ... to grow up hearing him playing behind Coltrane and it’s behind you, that’s a dream come true.

JazzReview: I hear a lot of McCoy in Vernell Brown’s playing.

Kenny Garrett: [Laughs] I told Vernell to check out McCoy and Monk. What I hear is this kind of McCoy style, the voices I want ... I’m exposing him to that.

JazzReview: "Doc Tone’s Short Speech" is for Kenny Kirkland, whose loss was just grand larceny to the whole world.

Kenny Garrett: We’d been friends at a distant for years. He always had the best of gigs. He was always in demand. He did Wynton, then he went out with Sting. I didn’t play with him a lot. Once he finished with Sting, he went to the "Tonight Show," and that’s when I hooked up with him. We listen to same the kind of music and like the same music. Kenny recorded only one CD I believe he had like 2,000 songs, but he was very giving. He gave to myself and to Branford and Wynton and Sting. He wasn’t selfish. We like all the same things. I liked BMWs, he liked BMWs; I liked Volkswagens, he liked Volkswagens; I liked German chocolate cake, he liked German chocolate cake. We had all these similarities. He was always in my corner. If someone wasn’t in my corner, he would convert them to my corner. I loved his playing and other people did, too. I had a lot of fun playing with Kenny Kirkland.

JazzReview: On "Standard of Language" you can blow the roof off. What are you thinking when you’re doing that?

Kenny Garrett: What I try to do, there are certain tunes you write and they conjure a certain vibe. The music I loved coming up as a kid it was always the jazz that had spirit in the music I try to keep that spirit in my music at all time. "Standard of Language" lends itself on that. I can stretch and blow. It’s the first time I’ve written in three part ... To me, it’s important to keep that spirit that my forefathers had in their music. They always had their spirit. That’s what my focus is.

JazzReview: I understand you’re a fan of all things Japanese a "Japanophile," I guess.

Kenny Garrett: First time I went to Japan I was 18, playing with the Duke Ellington Orchestra [with Mercer Ellington]. I tried to stay there. Then I was intrigued by the culture. The people were so shy. I was shy too I was just out of high school but these people were shier. That sort of brought me out of my shyness.

Next time I went back I was playing with Miles ... and there was something about the language. Going to Europe, I heard people talking about how Americans lazy to only learn one language. So I said I’d learn Japanese, about the hardest language around. I studies a little bit I got tapes and studied them then about three years ago I decided to go to Japan. I went for two weeks. It was overwhelming. I was jet lagged. I’d get up at 3 a.m., class would start at 9 p.m., I’d get there at 8 a.m. to pick on any teachers I could for special thing. They wanted me to put in advanced class. I was [my teacher’s] pet. She loved the way I talked Japanese. Could feel I had a passion for the music and language and culture. When I get a chance, I try to go over and hang out and check it out. I know a lot about the culture and the folk songs.

JazzReview: How does that slip into your music?

Kenny Garrett: On the last CD I actually did an Asian melody. Or listen to "Gendai." On every CD there’s some kind of Japanese melody. On Songbook, on this CD, it’s in the music, it’s sometimes hidden, but I always have that influence in there.

JazzReview: Some of your ballads or slower numbers remind me of Brian Blade’s Fellowship. I went back to some earlier albums and heard that sound predating Fellowship.

Kenny Garrett: I wouldn’t say I influenced him musically. I’ve heard people say that when Brian Blade plays with me, he plays differently. He played on Black Hope and before that no one had ever heard of him. Brian’s his own man. He’s always been his own man. He listens to Joni Mitchell and carries around his own guitar. I wouldn’t say I influenced him, but we came to the same place.

JazzReview: You did a project with the New Jersey Symphony on Samuel Barber’s Adagio For Strings. Are you into classical music? Are you planning on doing more of that?

Kenny Garrett: I would love to do more with that. It’s difficult to do, though. You have to get someone to write something or you’re dealing with a big budget, a lot of variables, but I’d like to do more. Lately I’ve been trying to get into it, through Bobby Hutcherson listen and express myself. Like Miles used to do, you can’t do the same thing. People seem to love the high-energy music ... but, I’d like to show people another side of Kenny Garrett.

JazzReview: You’ve mentioned Miles and Art Blakey and McCoy Tyner and a lot of other big names in jazz. Is the jazz community pretty small? Like, do you know everyone?

Kenny Garrett: You won’t know everyone. I think it might be a little bigger. There are people you know, but you don’t see them until certain situation. Wynton and Branford I know those guys but I won’t see them for year, two years, three years.

JazzReview: Is there anyone you’re itching to work with?

Kenny Garrett: I’ll tell you this: I’m interested in working with Bobby Hutcherson any time, McCoy Tyner any time, and Herbie Hancock anytime. Those are my men. You’ve always got to try to look up to someone. Any opportunity to play with any of those guys, I’d just learn so much more. I would love to do a year playing with each of those guys.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Kenny Garrett
  • Subtitle: Saxophinist raps about latest Warner Brothers release
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