In 1999, Kenny G released a “mash-up” of “What a Wonderful World,” melding his soprano saxophone acrobatics with the classic recording of the song by Louis Armstrong. The resultant album and single sold very well, following in the steps of the Nat/Natalie Cole re-construction of “Unforgettable” (which, not by mere coincidence, was produced by the same man: David Foster).
On June 5th, 2000, on the message board of his website, jazz guitarist Pat Metheny posted a lengthy treatise about Kenny G’s talents, with a specific critique about the desecration of Satchmo’s legacy. This missive has been reprinted many places since its first appearance on the ‘net, but I felt it merited another look. The full text follows:
Pat, could you tell us your opinion about Kenny G – it appears you were quoted as being less than enthusiastic about him and his music. I would say that most of the serious music listeners in the world would not find your opinion surprising or unlikely – but you were vocal about it for the first time. You are generally supportive of other musicians it seems.
kenny g is not a musician i really had much of an opinion about at all until recently. there was not much about the way he played that interested me one way or the other either live or on records. i first heard him a number of years ago playing as a sideman with jeff lorber when they opened a concert for my band. my impression was that he was someone who had spent a fair amount of time listening to the more pop oriented sax players of that time, like grover washington or david sanborn, but was not really an advanced player, even in that style. he had major rhythmic problems and his harmonic and melodic vocabulary was extremely limited, mostly to pentatonic based and blues- lick derived patterns, and he basically exhibited only a rudimentary understanding of how to function as a professional soloist in an ensemble – lorber was basically playing him off the bandstand in terms of actual music. but he did show a knack for connecting to the basest impulses of the large crowd by deploying his two or three most effective licks (holding long notes and playing fast runs – never mind that there were lots of harmonic clams in them) at the keys moments to elicit a powerful crowd reaction (over and over again) . the other main thing i noticed was that he also, as he does to this day, play horribly out of tune – consistently sharp.
of course, i am aware of what he has played since, the success it has had, and the controversy that has surrounded him among musicians and serious listeners. this controversy seems to be largely fueled by the fact that he sells an enormous amount of records while not being anywhere near a really great player in relation to the standards that have been set on his instrument over the past sixty or seventy years.
and honestly, there is no small amount of envy involved from musicians who see one of their fellow players doing so well financially, especially when so many of them who are far superior as improvisors and musicians in general have trouble just making a living. there must be hundreds, if not thousands of sax players around the world who are simply better improvising musicians than kenny g on his chosen instruments. it would really surprise me if even he disagreed with that statement.
having said that, it has gotten me to thinking lately why so many jazz musicians (myself included, given the right “bait” of a question, as i will explain later) and audiences have gone so far as to say that what he is playing is not even jazz at all.
stepping back for a minute, if we examine the way he plays, especially if one can remove the actual improvising from the often mundane background environment that it is delivered in, we see that his saxophone style is in fact clearly in the tradition of the kind of playing that most reasonably objective listeners WOULD normally quantify as being jazz. it’s just that as jazz or even as music in a general sense, with these standards in mind, it is simply not up to the level of playing that we historically associate with professional improvising musicians. so, lately i have been advocating that we go ahead and just include it under the word jazz – since pretty much of the rest of the world OUTSIDE of the jazz community does anyway – and let the chips fall where they may.
and after all, why he should be judged by any other standard, why he should be exempt from that that all other serious musicians on his instrument are judged by if they attempt to use their abilities in an improvisational context playing with a rhythm section as he does? he SHOULD be compared to john coltrane or wayne shorter, for instance, on his abilities (or lack thereof) to play the soprano saxophone and his success (or lack thereof) at finding a way to deploy that instrument in an ensemble in order to accurately gauge his abilities and put them in the context of his instrument’s legacy and potential.
as a composer of even eighth note based music, he SHOULD be compared to herbie hancock, horace silver or even grover washington. suffice it to say, on all above counts, at this point in his development, he wouldn’t fare well.
but, like i said at the top, this relatively benign view was all “until recently.”
not long ago, kenny g put out a recording where he overdubbed himself on top of a 30+ year old louis armstrong record, the track “what a wonderful world”. with this single move, kenny g became one of the few people on earth i can say that i really can’t use at all – as a man, for his incredible arrogance to even consider such a thing, and as a musician, for presuming to share the stage with the single most important figure in our music.
this type of musical necrophilia – the technique of overdubbing on the preexisting tracks of already dead performers – was weird when natalie cole did it with her dad on “unforgettable” a few years ago, but it was her dad. when tony bennett did it with billie holiday it was bizarre, but we are talking about two of the greatest singers of the 20th century who were on roughly the same level of artistic accomplishment. when larry coryell presumed to overdub himself on top of a wes montgomery track, i lost a lot of the respect that i ever had for him – and i have to seriously question the fact that i did have respect for someone who could turn out to have have such unbelievably bad taste and be that disrespectful to one of my personal heroes.
but when kenny g decided that it was appropriate for him to defile the music of the man who is probably the greatest jazz musician that has ever lived by spewing his lame-ass, jive, pseudo bluesy, out-of-tune, noodling, wimped out, fucked up playing all over one of the great louis’s tracks (even one of his lesser ones), he did something that i would not have imagined possible. he, in one move, through his unbelievably pretentious and calloused musical decision to embark on this most cynical of musical paths, shit all over the graves of all the musicians past and present who have risked their lives by going out there on the road for years and years developing their own music inspired by the standards of grace that louis armstrong brought to every single note he played over an amazing lifetime as a musician. by disrespecting louis, his legacy and by default, everyone who has ever tried to do something positive with improvised music and what it can be, kenny g has created a new low point in modern culture – something that we all should be totally embarrassed about – and afraid of. we ignore this, “let it slide”, at our own peril.
his callous disregard for the larger issues of what this crass gesture implies is exacerbated by the fact that the only reason he possibly have for doing something this inherently wrong (on both human and musical terms) was for the record sales and the money it would bring.
since that record came out – in protest, as insigificant as it may be, i encourage everyone to boycott kenny g recordings, concerts and anything he is associated with. if asked about kenny g, i will diss him and his music with the same passion that is in evidence in this little essay.
normally, i feel that musicians all have a hard enough time, regardless of their level, just trying to play good and don’t really benefit from public criticism, particularly from their fellow players. but, this is different.
there ARE some things that are sacred – and amongst any musician that has ever attempted to address jazz at even the most basic of levels, louis armstrong and his music is hallowed ground. to ignore this trespass is to agree that NOTHING any musician has attempted to do with their life in music has any intrinsic value – and i refuse to do that. (i am also amazed that there HASN’T already been an outcry against this among music critics – where ARE they on this?????!?!?!?!- , magazines, etc.). everything i said here is exactly the same as what i would say to gorelick if i ever saw him in person. and if i ever DO see him anywhere, at any function – he WILL get a piece of my mind and (maybe a guitar wrapped around his head.)
NOTE: this post is partially in response to the comments that people have made regarding a short video interview excerpt with me that was posted on the internet taken from a tv show for young people (kind of like MTV) in poland where i was asked to address 8 to 11 year old kids on terms that they could understand about jazz.
while enthusiastically describing the virtues of this great area of music, i was encouraging the kids to find and listen to some of the greats in the music and not to get confused by the sometimes overwhelming volume of music that falls under the jazz umbrella. i went on to say that i think that for instance, “kenny g plays the dumbest music on the planet” – something that all 8 to 11 year kids on the planet already intrinsically know, as anyone who has ever spent any time around kids that age could confirm – so it gave us some common ground for the rest of the discussion. (ADDENDUM: the only thing wrong with the statement that i made was that i did not include the rest of the known universe.)
the fact that this clip was released so far out of the context that it was delivered in is a drag, but it is now done. (it’s unauthorized release out of context like that is symptomatic of the new electronically interconnected culture that we now live in – where pretty much anything anyone anywhere has ever said or done has the potential to become common public property at any time.) i was surprised by the polish people putting this clip up so far away from the use that it was intended -really just for the attention – with no explanation of the show it was made for – they (the polish people in general) used to be so hip and would have been unlikely candidates to do something like that before, but i guess everything is changing there like it is everywhere else.
the only other thing that surprised me in the aftermath of the release of this little interview is that ANYONE would be even a little bit surprised that i would say such a thing, given the reality of mr. g’s music. this makes me want to go practice about 10 times harder, because that suggests to me that i am not getting my own musical message across clearly enough – which to me, in every single way and intention is diametrically opposed to what Kenny G seems to be after.
This is a follow-up post by Pat that was written on June 10th, 2000:
A few days ago, I wrote a response on this web site (the pmgln) to questions that had come in regarding an offhand comment that I made about musician Kenny g that became a mildly notorious net-disseminated video/soundbyte (at least among the folks that posted on the topic on the site). my “explanation” was intended for the 100 or so people who contributed to and followed the thread in question on our web site and kept sending in questions to the “q and a” section of the site about it. of course, I overlooked the possibility that someone would copy THAT response and post IT on what now seems to be a bunch of other sites and newsgroups around the web, where of course, rightly, many folks cannot understand what the big fuss is all about, because like the initial comment , the context was missing (or maybe it’s just because of the probably also justified, “who cares?/what is the problem?! it’s only KENNY G!!” – factor ). whatever.
But the response has been interesting. my mail box is flooded with a bunch of “you go, pat!” type missives from the (seemingly legions of) g-bashers worldwide and a lesser number but equally impassioned folks expressing dismay that i would be so low as to use my “bully pulpit” (!!) to “humiliate” the hapless Mr. g or that I was “way over the top” and “unprofessional” in my “fierce defense” of the standards that are set and accepted within the world of the music that I love and work in. there are even the predictable variations from the archetypically sanctimonious jazz-purist-types who of course must question “how can pat methane, of all people, presume to defend louis Armstrong against Kenny g?” – that’s one I should have seen coming up 6th avenue, had I been in new York at the time! wait a minute, I was!
Among my favorites of all of these is this from robboer; “…… (This) leads me to wonder at the level of furious and terribly angry horrible invective that has come from (Pat and) our fellow listeners (towards Kenny g) …. There have been whole lists and topics devoted to the shrill and angry denouncement of Mr. Gorelick and his smooth ilk. I have nightmares of these gentle folk, led by their true God Pat, rising up to find poor Kenny and drag him from his bed, brandishing his vapid CDs, and crucifying him for his sacrilegious shallow, mollusk like, and repetitive horn playing and defilement of the holy Louie.
And then I thought, yeah, rob!!! that sounds about right – let’s go DO that!!! no, seriously; to the people who seem to care one way or the other about this (which appears to have grown from the initial 26 to a fairly hefty 87 and counting); I thought I would respond to a few of the questions that people had sent in to our board since I hadn’t done it in a while, and that one (the “g” question) came up on the list first. I quickly tossed off a response thinking that there were a few funny (and yes, sincere) things in there that the aforementioned 26 people who read that board would get a kick out of (no, folks, I won’t be hitting anyone in the head with my guitar, despite the fact that “El Kabong” WAS probably my first major guitar influence as a kid) and thought that it would it least put the little sound byte that had been floating around of me saying basically, “Kenny g sucks” (I wonder if bevies got letters from the same folks as me?) in some kind of context for the folks who kept writing me to insist that I “explain” it. (again, I have to think, what needs explaining?? it’s KENNY G!!) so, let me just add this for the folks who question the wisdom of actually “going public” with such a “harsh” view (IT’S KENNY G!! IT’S KENNY G!! IT’S KENNY G!!).
No, I don’t really presume in any way whatsoever that my little 2 cents on the G-man and his contributions to the demise of American culture are going to make even one iota of difference or have any real significance nor do I expect it to, to either g himself or the legions of fans that actually dig hearing him play – and god bless all of em. (nor, for that matter, will the other tetragazzillionbytes of bandwidth that have been taken up in discussion about him, me, Winton Marseilles or anyone else in this or other forums), peoples words and opinions about music, mine included (“stature” be damned), especially when jotted down, are largely for the pleasure of the language, they mostly have less to do with the music in question than the cultural point of view that they are offered in and usually intrinsically designed to illuminate/castigate/defend/whatever – but about the best you can say about those words is they are superfluous in relation to the actual sounds in question when one is actually listening.
Like any fan of music, I’ve got my opinions, too – and from this episode I guess I should think twice about saying em out loud.** but, for what it’s worth, I can safely say that I personally have never read anything, good or bad, from anyone anywhere that has had any impact whatsoever on the actual musical issues that involve my most every waking minute. dare I say, somewhat sadly in this case, that the same is probably true with the G-man (and his audience, let’s not let the XX-million people who actually bought the record off the hook) as well.
So, anyway, the real job for me and other musicians out there that are trying to find the good notes, in fact, has nothing to do with talking, or with opinions; the real challenge is to try to make music that is the antidote to the disease, a symptom of which *might* be under discussion here. I do passionately believe that there is the possibility to make music that renders these kinds of discussions, and even the kind of music in discussion here, moot. like for instance, the reality of the music that Louis Armstrong gave the world at his best.
One last thing – it is a little alarming to me to see that my little rant on this topic seems to have generated such a relatively huge response. it makes me feel that in this day and age, even within the “jazz community”, controversy, especially PUBLIC controversy, has the chance to “win” over musical substance, even in terms of what gets discussed – people seem to absolutely love it. I have seen (and have never dug) at least one of my peers banking on this for a few years now with his public pronouncements and I have to admit that I underestimated the impact/interest that a “negative” public comment even on an obscure corner of the web can manifest. I guess I wish that the actual playing and writing could generate the kind of discussion that what was essentially an off the cuff cultural/political blurb into cyberspace seemed to. again, it seems more practicing and better music needs to be involved – gonna continue to work hard on that (finding the good notes) as a goal.
But then again, shouldn’t someone say something about this? isn’t it our responsibility? or is it actually just cool, Kenny g and a dead Louis in the year of his 100th birthday? even if it was his sappiest track ever, there is still so much valuable and rare information in the way he sang even THAT tune – like with everything he sang or played – that is the SHIT – and somehow juxtaposed with G, I don’t know, there is something practically obscene about it to me, obviously.
As far as I know (and it is very possible that I missed something) the major jazz and music mags (not to mention time or newsweek or something) have not really had too much to say about the subject other than the usual Kenny g bashing and maybe a little eye-rolling, nor do I know of any other prominent musicians who have spoken out on the subject. maybe as someone put it, dissing Kenny g is like “shooting fish in a barrel, he would have to be the world’s easiest musical target” but, isn’t this different? or are we all so numb to all the crap out there and so worn down by the apathy of the general public to any higher musical intentions that it really doesn’t matter to anyone anymore, something like this?
(one final final aside on this; I actually do know someone who works as an animator at MTV’s Celebrity Death Match where I suggested that they arrange a “Kenny g vs. the ghost of Louis Armstrong” match to settle this once and for all!)
Video suggestion, courtesy of Brentski (see comments below):