Kenny Garrett — this year’s festival headliner on what learnt from playing with the likes of Miles Davis and Art Blakey
While most of today’s young jazzers are taught at top conservatories, Kenny Garrett learnt directly from such masters as Art Blakey and Miles Davis, writes
JAZZ is a music of contrasts: one of continuity and reinvention; of individualistic self-expression, yes, but also of musical conversation and generosity.
A player like Kenny Garrett encapsulates such contrasts – he has one foot in the music’s great tradition, having played with a host of names linking back across a golden age: Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, McCoy Tyner and on and on.
Yet, he was also part of Miles Davis’s band during a period that produced expansive funk-fuelled albums like Amandla. In his playing, Garrett is known for this pyrotechnic solos, but, at the same time, his band has been a learning ground for musicians as diverse as Robert Glasper, Corry Henry and Chris Dave, all of whom recent visitors to the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival and all taking ownership of jazz music for a new generation and moving it into uncharted territory.
But to go back to the beginning, for Garret, the saxophone always seemed like destiny. His father played it, and his first memories are not even of the sound, but of its smell.
“I used to love the old cases, like my father had,” he says on the phone ahead of his appearance in Cork. “Those velvet cases. I used to sit by and listen to my father playing, and I remember that smell. I didn’t want to play it, but he bought me a toy one so I started emulating. My first real saxophone, I dunno where he got that from, but it had a bullet hole that had been soldered. I remembering thinking, wow, this thing off the street, or from the pawn shop, I dunno. But that was that. The saxophone chose me. It’s allowed me to travel the world, and be able to touch people, I hope spiritually.”
In contrast to today’s young jazz musicians, generally conservatory trained, Garrett was of the last generation to learn directly from some of the music’s greatest names.
“I’ve had a chance to play with a lot of the greats of the music and I’ve had a lot of good advice and a lot of good lessons from the elders,” he says.
“I feel blessed to have had that experience. I didn’t realise at the time that a lot of those elders wouldn’t be here too long. You know to play with Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Shaw, Donald Byrd … Those are the people who students today are reading about. I had an opportunity to be with them on the bandstand. Sometimes when I think about it, I kind of pinch myself, you know, it’s kind of amazing.”
Garrett speaks in terms of the foundation he was given by those early experiences. “When I was coming up, you really had to know about bebop. That was the foundation of the music. Then you could go back from that, and learn about Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, people like that, Fats Waller. But you had to learn a language. Once you understand a language, you can start to change it. Until you understand it, you’re not going to change it.”
And change it he has. His latest album, Do Your
Dance, takes in hiphop, calypso, bossanova, and Indian influences, while saving the final track, the aptly named Chasing the Wind, for the kind of lung-busting, superfast, instrument-pushing workout he’s famous for.
“I wrote that tune because I knew it would be a challenge for me to play it,” he says. “I mean, I know I can play it, but to play it the way I really wanna hear it, that’s another level. And that’s what keeps you going. That’s what keeps you saying, I want to go practice today.”
The album itself, with its fleet, get-out-your-seat vibe goes back to a gig in Philadelphia, Garrett says.
“We were playing some hardcore jazz, swingin’ hard and the people were dancing. I was like, wow, they dancing to that? Everything we played they were dancing. I was thinking this is how it used to be. And these were some elderly people. So I started thinking this is what they music used to be about, maybe we could get back to that.”
But it would be a mistake to think that Garrett’s music is about looking back. It’s just that he is acutely aware of where he is in a long tradition, and how best both to serve it and move it forward. That includes making his band the best kind of environment to make that happen, he says.
“A lot of people making a name now having come through my band,” he says, “I’m happy for them to be
out there making their mark on the music. Sometimes, they just needed a platform where they can find their way. And in my music, we were covering a lot of different genres.
“So, it is possible for them to figure things out. We have a bebop tune here, we have a tune that’s kind of funky here, we have hiphop kind of tune, or an Afro-Cuban tune. They have all these genres working all the time, because that is how I hear music. Sometimes, they just need to play and work it out. With some bands, they can’t because they’re not the place to do that.
“To a lot of them, I’m the Miles Davis of their generation. They didn’t get a chance to play with Miles, so that is how they look at me. Okay, I’m just Kenny doing my thing, but I appreciate that. Because I know where they are coming from.”
For Garrett, the music is always moving forward, not because that’s a new thing to do, but because it always has. “Some artists go in deep and they want to master a certain style, some go off and have something else in mind,” he says. “When Miles was talking about James Brown, that’s what I had listened to. He was talking about Prince – that was my generation. So I knew about that. But it’s another thing when someone listens to those rhythms and has more harmony and is able to play things on those rhythms that you would not normally hear.”
Those innovators now are just carrying on that trend. “Someone like Robert (Glasper), he always had a vision of wanting to go somewhere different with his voice. But even that is kind of similar to what Herbie (Hancock) wanted to do. We always tend to think we are doing something new, but people before us were also trying to find another way. It’s because they are open to different kinds of music. Herbie and Miles wanted to experiment, same thing with Robert.”
As musicians, he says, the aim is always the same: “All we can do is keep doing what we’re doing and hope people come to hear it, and feel it.”
The Kenny Garrett Quintet plays the Everyman Palace on Saturday, October 28, as part of a bill with Nicholas Payton
Kenny Garrett plays at the Everyman on the Saturday of the jazz festival.