wed 17/08/2022

Album: Kenny G - New Standards | reviews, news & interviews

Album: Kenny G - New Standards

Album: Kenny G - New Standards

Stultifyingly slow and near-lifeless

Kenny G: jazz, but not as we know it

Saxophonist Kenny G knows exactly what buttons he needs to press to upset the jazz faithful. He is quoted as having said of his new album New Standards (Concord): “The jazz community is gonna hate it. And that doesn’t concern me.”

There is quite some history of antagonism here. Turn the clock back to 1999 and the album Classics in the Key of G, and we hear Seattle-born G, Gorelick, playing over the classic Louis Armstrong recording of “What a Wonderful World”. Hackles were raised, to put it mildly. Guitarist Pat Metheny, for example, called it  “a new low point in modern culture – something that we all should be totally embarrassed about – and afraid of.”

Now, in “New Standards” it’s déjà vu all over again: there is a track here called “Legacy featuring the ‘Sound’ of Stan Getz”, with "sample programming" credited to Jochem van der Saag, making use of “sample notes to create this brand new melody never before played by Stan.” Getz's heirs have authorised the sampling, and G expresses his thanks to “Monica, Bev and Nick and the Stan Getz Estate for their support in me writing and recording” it. Jazz writer Ted Gioia doesn't mince his words. He calls it “truly a Frankenstein conception.”

Yes, Stan Getz did indeed have a recognizable “sound”, but there was so much more to his playing than that. New Standards made me want to go back to the source, and to a favourite album, Live at Montmartre recorded in 1977 over the days leading up to Getz's 50th birthday, to be reminded of just how great he was. In the first five minutes of the opening track “Morning Star”, we are treated to a gargantuan range of expression: from tenderness and lyrical flights to petulance, fear, anger, grief... It is all so vividly there, while the flow and the coherence of his musical ideas and vocabulary are as if they are being dictated to him by some deity. By that yardstick, Kenny G does something akin to what Dorothy Parker once said of (all-time Oscars record-holder) Katherine Hepburn: he “runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.” Or as G himself admitted recently in a documentary: “I don’t think I’m a personality to people, I think I’m a sound.”

That remark goes to the heart of what Kenny G is about. There is a sameness about his improvising. As one keeps listening, the familiar licks, ornaments and scale patterns keep coming back. Perhaps that is enough to give the listeners who want it a comfort blanket of familiarity. The sad thing is that whereas the best improvisers will always tell a story and give it a shape, Kenny G doesn't even try. The saxophonist just settles the listener down in one of his unremittingly slow core tempi, and normally leaves us there. His original inspiration back when he started out may have come from albums like Grover Washington's Winelight, but these days everything has slowed down to a trudge.

When variation does come, as in a tune like “Milestones”, it is in order to take us straight back to the land of plod. Leaving aside the fact that the title is cribbed from a classic Miles Davis composition from 1958 – which may or may not be another gratuitous goad to the jazz community – what Kenny G and co-composer Sam Hirsh do in this tune is to work with a mechanical back-and-forth between a slightly more upbeat tempo and the habitually slow comfort zone. Another twist is in the tune “Anthem”: the majority of the track is, as ever, over-deliberate and heavy-footed, but for once in a time signature of 7. Comforting or comatose? Others may beg to differ, but I find it stultifying.

There is an uncomfortable irony about New Standards: the fact that the album is appearing on the Concord label. In the last decade of Stan Getz’s life from The Dolphin (1981) onwards, albums by him appeared regularly on the label at the instigation of its founder, jazz fan Carl Jefferson. Jefferson once said "I believe in musical purity, not manufactured music ... I'm not interested in trying to sell gold or platinum albums." Several mergers and a private equity-funded management buy-out later, Concord is now "the world’s most significant independent music and theatrical rights company" and widely reported to be up for sale. In other words, a very different beast indeed from the idealistic upstart start-up it was in Getz and Jefferson's day.

Kenny G claims in the liner notes that his aim was to “capture the heart and soul” of jazz standards by doing them his way.  Maybe. He has certainly rendered them near-lifeless.

@sebscotney

When variation does come, it takes us straight back to the land of plod

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