Pop Goes the Music Diary: Kenny G … Musical Hack & Necrophiliac

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Pop Goes the Music Diary: Kenny G ... Musical Hack & Necrophiliac Listen to this article

Pop Goes the Music Diary: Kenny G ... Musical Hack & Necrophiliac

I have gotten some flack from folks who see bias in my choices between ‘Music Diary Songs of Choice’ and ‘Pop Goes the Music Diary’: in short, they see me giving jazz and rock high praise, while being brutally critical of pop music. Well, given that one category is made for the money while the other is made for the sake of the music (if someone is playing jazz for the money alone they are terribly deluded), that shouldn’t be surprising.

But there are more than a few examples of dreadful jazz music made for the sake of pandering to a wide audience, perhaps none more obvious than the poster child of why everyone hates so-called ‘Smooth Jazz’: Kenny G. Sure he sold tons of records and is ‘shopping mall friendly’, but ultimately he is a hack and an affront to the great tradition of the soprano saxophone.

Here is the supposedly ‘easy on the ears’ Songbird, which had grated on my soul since I first heard it 25 years ago when it polluted the airwaves (and VH1) back in 1986:

In case you think I am just bashing that style of jazz based on my preference of more ‘out there’ stuff, check out this amazing song by Grover Washington – Winelight. The band is communicating, the groove is organic, the melody is crisp and shows harmonic development, and the solo shows Washington’s mastery of the form. With Songbird, you get a generic backing track with a generic melody that would have better nuanced by a half-way decent vocalist, and some noodling over the top of it that is totally out of context from the main theme.

After his huge hit Duotones, Kenny G seemed to fade away with Michael Bolton and others. But of course life is never so simple. In the 90s there was a new trend – virtual duets. Frank Sinatra did a dreadful recording of these songs with people he never met. From there things got even more ‘virtual’ – they became ‘duets with dead people’.

The term that sprung up at that point was ‘musical necrophilia’. Before Sinatra, Natalie Cole had a huge hit with Unforgettable, sung ‘along’ with her long-dead father Nat King Cole. Natalie herself was a talented singer with a penchant for addictions and burning through money, so it was obvious that this was much a ‘money grab’ as a tribute … but folks cut her slack because ‘it was her father’. Until she kept going back to the same well again and again …

But the trend continued throughout the 90s, but has fortunately fallen out of fashion, replaced by in absentia ‘duets’ of singer and rapper engineered by record companies to broaden appeal (i.e. make themselves more money). One of the later examples of ‘duets with dead people’ came on Kenny G’s 1999 recording “Classics in the Key of G”. The record mainly consists of Kenny G simply replaying classic songs with everything dressed up to sound current. The one exception is “What a Wonderful World”, where Kenny G inserts himself to play along with Louis Armstrong. It is a rather amateurish engineering job, and overall a terrible song.

Around that same time guitarist Pat Metheny stirred things up when explaining jazz to some kids on Polish TV, as he encouraged them to explore the great masters and to try to avoid getting swamped by mass marketed stuff like Kenny G, who he said “plays the dumbest music on the planet”. He goes further, saying that is inherently obvious, “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”.

I get his context on that, whereas many saw him as bashing a fellow musician. Metheny is all about putting himself out there, putting everything on the line. This isn’t about jazz or rock or pop – it is about trying to communicate musically versus playing it safe and easy. Kenny G hit a momentary sweet spot for some folks – but the so did Milli Vanilli.

His comments stirred up some controversy, so he was pressed to elaborate. He addressed the controversy over Kenny G’s fame and claims of ‘jealousy’ on the part of other musicians:

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.

But what really drew his ire was the ‘duet with the dead’ that Kenny G did with Satchmo. Metheny exploded about this:

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, f’ed 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, [crapped] 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.

Pretty strong stuff from someone who is well known as one of the most mild-mannered and easy going folks in all of music.

And here is the ‘musical necrophilia’, as Kenny G inserted himself on top of Louis Armstrong’s classic song:

And finally, here is the full text from JazzOasis:

Question:

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.

Pat’s Answer:

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 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.

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 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 insignificant 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. (its 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. gs 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.[/showhide]

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About the Author

Michael Anderson
I have loved technology for as long as I can remember - and have been a computer gamer since the PDP-10! Mobile Technology has played a major role in my life - I have used an electronic companion since the HP95LX more than 20 years ago, and have been a 'Laptop First' person since my Compaq LTE Lite 3/20 and Powerbook 170 back in 1991! As an avid gamer and gadget-junkie I was constantly asked for my opinions on new technology, which led to writing small blurbs ... and eventually becoming a reviewer many years ago. My family is my biggest priority in life, and they alternate between loving and tolerating my gaming and gadget hobbies ... but ultimately benefits from the addition of technology to our lives!