Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Pat Metheny on Kenny G

I'm not a musician. At best, I know what I like and what I don't like. I have found that the best of any genre is worth listening to, whether it is jazz, rock, country, classical, Chinese opera, Northeast Thai khaen, Tuvan throat singing, whatever. I discovered the existence of Kenny G at a pirate audio tape stand in Thailand about 20 years ago. I asked if he had any jazz saxophone and he offered me Kenny G. I said I never heard of him. He said he was very popular.

When I finally played it, I realized this was my punishment for buying pirate tapes. This is not jazz, was my thought, it's barely elevator music. Look, I'm not putting down people who like Kenny G. They probably have a much more developed understanding of things I know nothing about. Kenny G is easy listening jazz and maybe he's caused fans to listen to more serious jazz.

But he just isn't for me. It would be like doing a crossword puzzle aimed at a ten year old. It isn't challenging to the point of being boring. But I couldn't have told you why.

The other day Kenny G came up in a conversation, and Peter asked if I'd seen Pat Metheny's take on Kenny G. I hadn't and so today I finally googled it. Let me also say that the moment I first heard Pat Metheny in the old Visual Art Center of Alaska, I knew I had to get the tape - it was As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls. Metheny is a genius. (Below courtesy of quesapa:

Or this longer excerpt from sitiofandotcom on YouTube)

I don't completely understand all the musical terms, but the way Metheny explains it, there are actual technical and competency issues that make Kenny G a lesser musician than a lot of well known - but less popular - saxophonists.

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.

Metheny also explains why G appeals to audiences.

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 key 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, played horribly out of tune - consistently sharp.

He also says that he doesn't begrudge Kenny G his success, though it is difficult seeing much more talented saxophonists barely making it while G reaps in the profits. For Metheny, it was G's taping over an old Louis Armstrong song that pushed him to publicly rant about this.

Why am I putting this up here? It fits nicely into the theme of this blog - how we know what we know. Sometimes people can have a sense of something - in this case that Kenny G just didn't cut it in comparison to other well known (and even lesser known) jazz saxophonists - but we don't have enough technical knowledge to explain why. It's nice to get your gut feeling supported and explained by an expert.

But there are plenty of times when my gut is wrong. And a major problem in the US today is that a lot of people rely way too much on their feelings, take the word of celebrities (as opposed to experts) who tell them they're right, and conclude that global climate change is not an issue and that President Obama is a socialist who wants to indoctrinate their children. So I'm posting this here, knowing at least one knowledgeable musician is likely to read this and if Pat Metheny is a false prophet here, Phil will let me know.


  1. Steve! I cannot get over how your most normal of posts jog my memory.

    My experience with Kenny G is limited and I like to keep it that way. One day when I only had six kids, I was speeding and listening to KISS, "I. . . wanna rock all nigggght! O And party ev-e-ry day!" I was going pretty fast and got stopped in my tank. I couldn't afford the ticket and was ready to cry but was not going to try to talk my way out of it. The police officer/super trooper noted my lack of tickets and my large family and was smiling at me, "Have you ever had a ticket before?" I was like, "I know, this was stupid. I am wrong, I was getting into my music, I could have hurt someone, this was reckless." I'd not been driving long as I'd just resumed after a three year hiatus after I'd had an accident.

    The officer wanted to know about my accident and sat in my car for a few minutes and told me about the distractions I already had, that he'd not ticket me, etc. because he knew I couldn't afford it and knew a warning would suffice. ("I know you won't let me down, Mrs. Crumpet!") He told the kids to be good for me while I drove and wrapped up his pep talk with, "So what will you do next time you are in a residential zone?"

    I said, "I'll listen to Kenny G."

    He blinked at me, "Just say you will drive the speed limit! We can't have you falling asleep at the wheel!"

  2. And that's just it. KG is good when one reads or is focussed elsewhere. Am I the only person who has music as background at times? I love New Age blah, blah music! Never really listen to it, though.

    Reminds me of the varying levels of reading one can engage. They serve different purpose. For me, the question is more about skill, range and artistry. Does the music engage my spirit, my need to rock out, or to weep with joy? Or does it fill the void?

    Elevator music addresses a need or it wouldn't exist. God bless 'em, I say, let the market sort it out. This comes from someone who regularly bemoaned America's death march with poor aesthetics.

    It's also because I was a musician who met an audience and wowed 'em, bored them, and felt what artistic communication can be. In every endeavor, there is a simple 'trick' that impresses the viewer, the customer, the buyer. It's not a sin to employ them, if one's mastery permits the use of more sophisticated techniques as well.

    We can all become 'one note wonders' after all. But even to do that well, is an art in itself. KG is one of these artists.

    I don't listen to him often, and only in the background. Other opinions can and do differ. Isn't that great?

  3. Nice post. In case you haven't already heard, it's Pat Metheny, stead Methany. Also it's "As Falls Wichita..." stead "As Wichita Falls..."

    Metheny is a genius, and a fine way to redeem yourself for the sins of buying or listening to the likes of Kenny G. I used to listen to Metheny's music 20 years ago, then saw his group on Austin City Limits last year. He still has it, and still surrounds himself with some of the best musicians on the planet. Thanks for reminding me of him; now to go seek out "American Garage" and relive the youth.

  4. Thanks for the corrections, Anon. I've fixed them. Yes, that first hit of Metheny was probably 25 years ago.

  5. I love your post and the story about the speeding ticket and slowing down in residential areas. You said it so perfectly...it's great to be validated by an expert even when popular opinion sadly leans in another direction.

  6. If anyone should like Kenny G's music, fine! Just don't be giving all this crap that his music is anything neaer jazz

  7. your last comment about listening to celebrities and concluding that global warming isn't an issue, Obama's a socialist who wants etc., ruined your entire post. Typical lefty-fascist lies---almost ALL "celebrities" think global "warming" is the BIG THING to harry and brainwash the yokels with---and Obamacalls himself a redistributionist who hung out with the socialists and Marxists. Fundamentally dishonest, but no surprise, Steve-o.

  8. Anon, sorry for your reaction. Let's see. Yokel, defined by google = An uneducated and unsophisticated person from the countryside. It seems to me the yokels are the ones who don't believe in global warming while the educated city folks and 95+% of scientists who study this do. And what's a socialist? Does it count all the career military who live with government assigned housing, work locations, work assignments, education, health care, shopping malls, etc.?

    There may well be a reasonable criticism of my combining politics into this music post, but your comments seem more like an angry, kneejerk tirade with no substance.

    Steve-o? Do I know you?


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