Saturday, May 18, 2002

Wayne's Words

A veteran rock critic tries cutting out the middle man, offering opinions on pop music, culture, media and society.

Saturday, May 18, 2002

Kenny Garrett
(Warner Bros.)

by Wayne Robins

During the decades when i was a full-time rock critic, jazz was often the music I craved to get away from "the office." Back in the sixties, W. 8th St. in Greenwich Village was lined with record shops that would sell cut-rate jazz albums, so a five dollar bill might allow me to bring home a Miles, a Monk, and a Mingus. There was Mongo Santamaria and Cal Tjader for the Afro-latin pulse of hot city nights. Feeling frisky and risky, you could allow your impulses to try some of the more challenging Impulse! artists on for size: Coltrane, of course, but also Albert Ayler and my favorite, Pharaoh Sanders, whose mind-bending and beautifully rendered "Tauhid" satisfied our late night stoner cravings at Bard College's Stone Row dorms the way a visit from "The Sandwich Man" did for the midnight munchies.

Having been exposed to so much great bop, free improvisation, and latin jazz as a teenager, I drifted away from jazz as it drifted away from me shortly after Miles Davis perfected the invention of fusion with "Bitches Brew" and "On the Corner." (One of my obsessive laments is that Jimi Hendrix' untimely death brought to an end any hopes of a much rumored collaboration with Miles bearing any fruit). But fusion added the "ka-ching" of the cash register to the rhythm section of too many underpaid jazz musicians, and while I couldn't argue with their going for the gold, I didn't have to dig it. And I didn't. (One of those great albums I bought on Eighth Street back in the 1960's was trumpeter Freddie Hubbard's "Backlash" on Atlantic, a prophetic title considering what happened to Hubbard's rep when he wandered too far down sell out street).

All of this is a kind of explanation about why when I heard Kenny Garrett's "Happy People," released this spring on Warner Bros. Records., I was under the mistaken notion that it was quite an accomplishment for a first or second album. Actually, "Happy People" marks an even dozen albums with Garrett, an alto and soprano sax player, as leader since 1984. And the Detroit native been kicking around before that, playing with The Duke Ellington Orchestra under the direction of Mercer Ellington, the Mel Lewis Orchestra, and then making Mingus music with the Dannie Richmond Quartet. Later, he played with Miles himself, as well as Art Blakey and--get this--a Bethel reputationally rehabilitated Freddie Hubbard.

My bad, but his good. All but one of the 11 tracks (produced by Garrett and Marcus Miller) were written by Garrett. There's an emphasis on Asian influences: "Song for DiFang" has Taiwanese roots, "Song #8" and many others have subtle Japanese touches; and the "Arirang" section of "Asian Medley" is based on a traditional Korean tune.

Being a nut for well-played vibes, Bobby Hutcherson elevates the four tunes on which he appears, especially the bustling "Thessalonika," the rich ballad "Halima's Story," and the benign Thelonious assault of "Monk-ing Around." My quibble with the disc is that in the tension between Marcus Miller's studio perfectionism and Garrett's inclination to spontaneity, the tipping point goes Miller's way and the the edge of excitement loses to excessive refinement. Still, I'm more than glad to have made belated acquaintance with Garrett, and fully expect to be blown away by his lucky thirteenth.
(c) Wayne Robins 2002. All rights reserved. Comments?

.: posted by Wayne Robins Saturday, May 18, 2002

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