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

Irish Examiner - Supplement - - GUINNES CORK JAZZ FESTIVAL - Alan O’Rior­dan

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.

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