How Kenny G Shook Off the Haters And Finally Got Hip
A new HBO documentary has turned the much-maligned smooth jazz inventor into a cool cat. He shares the magic with AARP
He’s Kenny G and you’re not. The man whose animated doppelgänger, a soprano-sax-wielding, frizzy-haired purveyor of “smooth jazz,” obliterated the musical universe in the 2020 film Trolls World Tour, and who was summoned by no less than Kanye West to serenade his then-wife Kim Kardashian on Valentine’s Day is not some jazz purist’s feverish nightmare, but a self-effacing Seattle native who just happened to sell 75 million albums around the world.
With his first album in six years, New Standards, arriving in December, along with a new HBO documentary, Listening to Kenny G, which explores the conundrum of being at once one of the most successful yet more reviled musicians among critical types, the skilled airplane pilot and golfer has emerged from his pandemic quarantine busier than ever.
With his legendary work ethic — he still practices three hours a day upon waking each morning — Kenny G agrees he’s a product of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours, but says there’s also a little something else that goes into it, namely talent. A graduate of the same Seattle high school that produced cartoonist Lynda Barry and choreographer Mark Morris, Kenny Gorelick studied accounting at the University of Washington in between music gigs. He asked his father, owner of a plumbing supply company dubbed Thrifty, for a brief time to pursue his muse before joining the firm. The rest is history, of course. His 1992 album Breathless, a Diamond award honoree, 12-times platinum, is the best selling instrumental album ever. His song “Going Home” is the official anthem in China for the end of each workday. And he really upped his hip quotient by playing on Kanye West’s 2019 Grammy-winning Jesus Is King album.
Kenny G put down the sax to talk with AARP about the world of being, well, Kenny G and how comfortable he is — or isn’t — with how his fame sits with certain folks.
What was the idea behind the HBO documentary? It’s quite brave of you to make fun of yourself.
That was the director’s purpose for the film. I didn’t realize how strong the message was until I saw the film. That was more her point, rather than personal anecdotes about my life. It was more about this group of people that has a real problem with my success.
You’ve seen the Saturday Night Live sketch, “What’s Up With That?,” where Fred Armisen plays a character that looks just like you.
I don’t know why they just don’t have me do it ... I went up to Kenan [Thompson] and Fred when I played with Foster the People on the show and said, “Hey guys, I’m right here.” I can fake-play the sax really well, too.
You seem to have been able to shrug off people’s sometimes emotional response to your music by letting us know you’re in on the joke. In the documentary, even the New York Times’ Ben Ratliff seems to give in.
I love where he goes, “What’s not to like?” at the end. It’s a great moment in the movie. I love that.
Your music created a whole new radio format with the “The Wave” smooth jazz stations.
I’m proud of the fact it was a new style of music that no one was playing or writing at the time. And it touched a great many people who weren’t traditional jazz, pop or R & B fans. Somewhere in the middle of all that was something they were looking for and liking. Eventually, the radio format became diluted by adding every instrumentalist known to man, and a lot of them were just not that good, which proved its demise.
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The documentary shows you recording the new album, piecing it together almost note by note.
It takes a great deal of discipline and patience to record that way. I don’t want something to just sound good, I want it to sound phenomenal. I dissect what I don’t like, and it takes me a long time to find the notes I’m looking for. This record was influenced by the jazz of the ’50s and ’60s, but I’m attempting to evolve it using today’s musical tools.
Which is something critics have accused you of not doing, not advancing the form.
I know how to play John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” solo or even Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon. But I’m doing this in a style all my own, the way I play, that feels right to me. I don’t want to repeat something that’s already been done. I prefer the way I’m doing it.
Why call the album New Standards?
I wanted to play songs with chord progressions that reflected the classic ’50s and ’60s jazz ballads, while doing them my way, making the old standards the new standards.
You sampled Stan Getz for “Legacy” on the new album, like you once did with Louis Armstrong on “What a Wonderful World.”
I took the notes from a live recording of him doing “Happy Birthday” performed without a band and made them into a melody. I don’t think that’s ever been done before. All the critics who didn’t like the Louis Armstrong duet of “What a Wonderful World” will go crazy for this one. We have the technology to take notes, stretch them, condense them, change the pitch. I’m very proud of it. I think it’s a powerful piece of music. I consider it a masterpiece, and I don’t care what the jazz purists say. His widow, Monica, and family have given me its blessings. They love it. And I will donate all the money from it to Stan Getz’s estate, just like I did with the Louis Armstrong song.
The album was completed before the pandemic but held back, allowing you to really re-record and tweak.
I enjoyed the process without feeling any time pressure. That was fun for me. I enjoyed that a lot.
You play both soprano and tenor sax on the album.
On “Two of a Kind,” I even play both saxes in a duet with myself. There’s one song, “Moonlight,” on which I play alto. It’s very evenly mixed this time, with more tenor than normal. Those songs seemed to need that big tenor sax.
With the string arrangements and piano parts, these songs sound like movie scores. It’s remarkable you’ve never been asked to do one.
Many of the songs on this record could have been thematic pieces for a romantic movie. It’s one of those areas where the doors are just not open for me. One day, someone like Quentin Tarantino will call me to do a score.
Did you set out to become a “brand,” with your hair, name and musical style?
I never thought about it that way. Branding wasn’t a concept back then. We were just thinking about making records and getting them played on the radio. My music is the most important thing; do that and the rest will take care of itself.
So in the end, you just let the haters hate and go about your business?
I make the best of it. It doesn’t stop me because I know what kind of musician I am, what I put into it. I get tremendous feedback from what I’m doing. Why listen to the 1 percent who don’t like you? Things may have changed, but I’m still playing for 1,500 people. That’s a great gig in itself. And I’m happy to do it.
Roy Trakin is a pop culture critic; biographer of Sting, Tom Hanks and Jim Carrey; Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and MTV Video Music Awards voter; and longtime contributor to Variety, Billboard, The Hollywood Reporter, The Village Voice and the L.A. Times.