06/22/10 By Lee Mergner
Kenny G: Practice What You Play
The iconic smooth jazz saxophonist talks about his music and his golf in a candid interview with JT’s editor in chief
Kenny G is practicing. He was supposed to call at 8 am sharp from his home in Southern California, but now it’s almost two hours later and there’s no word. A followup e-mail from his worried publicist sets things in motion and he calls shortly thereafter, apologetic, explaining that he starts practicing early in the morning every day and today he started and got so wrapped up in his exercises that he forgot all about the interview. He then jokes that this is one excuse a jazz magazine can hardly fault. “Especially if I’m doing a thing for JazzTimes, they can’t be too unhappy that I’m practicing, right?”
It’s true, the alibi holds up fine with us. And it’s doubtful that many jazz fans and musicians understand just how much work the saxophonist puts into his music. But Kenny G approaches his saxophone playing with the same dedication and resolve as someone like Sonny Rollins, though the end result musically couldn’t be farther apart.
Kenny G’s new album Heart and Soul is being released on Concord Records on June 29. The album is produced and arranged by renowned hitmaker Walter Afanasieff (Christina Aguilera Michael Bolton Mariah Carey, Céline Dion, Whitney Houston, Mika, Barbra Streisand) and accordingly is as commercial an effort as the saxophonist has ever done. And that’s saying something. It features two tracks with guest vocalists—Robin Thicke and Kenny Babyface Edmonds—and I wondered if the saxophonist feels a certain kinship with singers. “What I like about it is that it gives the album a variety of sounds so it’s not just one dimensional,” explains Kenny G. “Sometimes playing with a singer can be really easy, and sometimes it can be really hard, depending on the song and how much space they leave for things to fill in. If it’s on my record, there’s got to be a substantial place for me to play. Otherwise, I’m not gonna do it. I’m not putting it out there just to sell records. Although I know that having the right vocals will really add to the appeal of it. I like that because we all want to sell as many records as we can. Once we’re done creatively, I can’t think of one musician that doesn’t want their record to sell.”
Nonetheless, he denies that commercial potential is the overriding reason for collaborating with singers. “In the creative process, you can’t think about it like that,” he says. “You just think about making the right kind of songs.” The right kind of songs for Mr. G right now is a highly accessible sort of instrumental pop, played almost entirely on soprano. But he denies leaving the tenor behind. “No, there’s one tenor tune on the record. I don’t know. I just take it as it comes. I actually recorded a whole record of tenor songs. I just haven’t released it. It’s sitting on my desk now. Eventually, it might work out. I don’t think about the instrument, I just think about the song, and if the song doesn’t sound good on tenor and then I have to play it on soprano that’s the way it goes.”
Talk about his all-tenor album leads to a discussion of a kind of song that’s different from what he’s most known for. “I’m going to end up doing an album of standards at some point. I just don’t know when it’s going to happen, but I’m going to write all the standards. That’s way in the future.” Writing a standard sounds like a daunting challenge for Kenny G or for any musician or composer for that matter. “But that’s the way I’m going to do it. I’m not going to play the same old tunes everybody else plays. There’s no point in it. If you have a beautiful tone and you have technique, you’re going to sound good, but it’s already been done a million times. So what I want to do is write songs that are in the very same vein. I don’t know how to describe it.”
Hmm, how about with lots of changes? “Yes, more changes. I think when people hear it, they’ll say this song sounds familiar or that song sounds familiar. It’s going to sound like songs that they’ll feel like they’ve heard before but they won’t be, they’ll be brand new. And I can be real creative with it because it’s my song. That may be three or four CDs from now. I’m looking forward to that.”
No matter the material, Kenny G has a sound that is instantly recognizable, no matter how many clones or sweet-sounding smooth jazz saxophonists are out there. Does he think his sound has changed any in the 30 or so years he’s been out there as a leader? “I don’t know,” he answers, sounding skeptical. “The tone is probably similar to the way I’ve always played. I just play it. I don’t do anything different from what I’ve done 20 years ago. My technique I hope is better. Otherwise all those hours of practicing are for nothing.”
He does eventually admit to one change in his sound at least on record. “I think I am playing fewer notes,” he muses. “Maybe not live. Maybe on my CDs I’m playing fewer. Maybe I have less to prove. That’s just growing up. It’s like a young golfer. He wants to hit it as far as he can, but later on he decides he’d rather score well. You just grow up and you don’t have to play every note on every song. I really don’t think about it too much. I play my stuff and then when I feel like it needs 32nd notes, then I play them, but if I feel it doesn’t need much, then I give it what I think it needs and hopefully I get it right.”
He’s always been a strong live performer and many people who’ve just heard the hits on the radio or in the grocery story or in the doctor’s office or, well, everywhere, are not hearing or seeing the whole package. “Live, anything goes,” he says. “Live, there’s a million notes being played. The fun part of playing live is that it’s all about getting the dynamics of the lows and the highs and the fasts and the slows.”
Even then Kenny G is not there to give a clinic—for fans, for musicians or for critics. “I’m not going to give them my 32nd note exercise pattern. It’s not going to sound good and there’s no point. The point would be if I was doing an instructional record, say, here’s this exercise or that exercise. Other than that, it doesn’t sound musical to me.”
He does take his exercises seriously and he readily explains his motivation as well as his methodology. “To me practicing is two parts. One part is that you’ve got to get that saxophone and mouthpiece in your mouth. You have to. Otherwise you lose the muscle control. It’s a physical thing. It’s hours of practicing. I’ll turn on a golf tournament and watch while I’m playing my saxophone. That way I’m going to play longer and stronger.”
The second part is all about the technique. “It’s like a gym,” he explains. “You’re exercising. I play every one of my exercises in every key and I play them slow or I play them fast. I try to circular breathe them. Sometimes I go like 15 minutes without taking my mouthpiece out of my mouth because I’m circular breathing a bunch of exercises. When I’m done with that, it’s like I take a 5 minute break now. That’s how you work it. So that when I play live, nothing is holding me back from what I want to do with the saxophone.”
And lest the idea of an instructional book or video seem out-of-place, Kenny G explains that the saxophone exercises he does are all of his own making. “Yes, they’re mine,” he says with pride, picking up his horn. “Here’s an exercise I play [plays a complicated but catchy 4 bar riff of 32nd notes]. That’s a thing I do in every key. And it’s a cool lick too. I could play that live. But you can’t play this live [plays a complicated scale at the same tempo]. That doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t mean anything.”
The saxophonist sees an analogy with his favorite sport. “Jack Nicklaus always said at the driving range, you practice the shots you’re going to use when you play. You’re not just going to hit a ball a certain way because you’re at a driving range. My practice sessions are so that when I’m out playing my game, figuratively speaking, then I’m going to be able to recall all these things that are in my muscle memory and they’re going to be licks that are going to be awesome.”
Those references to golf are not the idle comments of a fan or even a weekend hacker. Kenny G is apparently a kick-ass golfer with a scratch handicap, which for those unfamiliar with the sport’s terminology means he generally can make par on any course. That is, as Kenny G himself might say, awesome. Most of us mere mortals are happy to break 100, whereas the G-force on an average day is scoring in the 70s. Perhaps one of the reasons that his playing in both music and golf seem to be related is that he started both at nearly the same age. He was ten when he picked up both a saxophone and a golf club. The two pursuits have been symbiotically intertwined ever since. “I played in high school on the golf team. When I went to college, I stopped playing. Then when I went on the road, I did play more. Over the years, it’s been in and out of my life a lot.”
It wasn’t until relatively recently that he got as serious about the sport as he did the music. “Five years ago or so, I decided I wanted to get good and I said, ‘I’m just going to approach it like playing the saxophone, so I need to practice.’ But how do I practice? I have to practice the right things, I have to practice correctly. I sought out teachers. Fortunately, when you have a name that people know, you can make a phone call to people that wouldn’t normally take your call. You can go get a lesson from Tiger Woods’ teacher. I got the information I needed and then I just practiced.”
He takes his clubs with him when he goes on the road and does his best to fit in a round of nine or eighteen holes between all the rigors or touring. And when he’s home, he practices the golf almost as much as the music. He didn’t hesitate when asked to name his favorite golf course. “Pebble Beach,” he says emphatically. “I have great memories there. Phil Mickelson was my partner at the AT&T and we came in first place in 2001 [in Pro-Am]. My name is on the plaque there right next to Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. And I got a trophy.” He sounds like a Little Leaguer talking about his team’s victory in a local tournament, but given the company he was keeping and the setting, who can blame him?
I wondered if down the line, we might see a Kenny G tournament. After all, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope managed to pull it off. But the mega-million seller says, no, he doesn’t have that kind of money and it’s somehow comforting to me, someone who drives an old Ford Taurus, to know that there are at least a few things that even Kenny G can’t afford. He does make appearances at tournaments, particularly if there is a charitable cause involved. Kenny G has a particular affinity for causes relating to children. And if there’s music education involved, he’s even more likely to be there.
All in all, the man seems both happy and driven. And famously not bothered at being the brunt of so much criticism and backlash connected with his outrageous commercial success and visibility. In case you’re wondering how Kenny G lets it all slide right off his well-paid back, he has his own story tell about a specific event that acts as a talisman against both criticism and hubris. “The key happened a long time ago,” he says. “People should not forgot those moments that teach them lessons. And I’ll tell you that moment for me. It was at the Syracuse Jazz Festival. I had just come on the scene in terms of people knowing who I was. I was opening up for Dizzy Gillespie or maybe it was Miles Davis. We’re playing this gig and playing these songs that are new to everybody. There’s no smooth jazz stations then and it’s not like there are a thousand sax players who all sound the same. I don’t search out reviews, but it came across my desk figuratively. The review says, ‘Fresh, exciting, new innovative, it’s great, this guy can play, his technique, his tone.’ And I’m thinking, this is awesome. We played the same gig the next year. We played the exact same songs. ‘Stale, uneventful, full of fluff…’ See, this was 20 million records later. When I first played there, I hadn’t sold many records. Now that I’d sold all those records, it was commercial, no substance, full of fluff. It was the exact same set list. I had to look at that and go, ‘Wait a minute this has absolutely nothing to do with me.’ So there’s nothing I can do about this, except play what I really want to do. I never forget that. So when I see an article that goes, he’s this, he’s that [negatively], I’m thinking this is Syracuse the second article. And when I see an article that tells me how great I am, then that’s Syracuse the first article. I can’t believe anything. Don’t believe the first one, don’t believe the second one. That’s the problem with people who get depressed over the bad articles, because they must obviously let the good ones have some good effect on them. You can’t. You have to feel good about yourself and what you’re doing.”
I tell Kenny G that this has long been Sonny Rollins’ mantra about criticism. If you believe them when they said you sound great, when you know you didn’t, then you’re going to have to believe them when they said you sounded lousy. So don’t pay attention to any of it. “Wow, you made me feel great,” he says. “Now I’m going to walk around today knowing I have something in common with Sonny Rollins. Spread that word, will you? I’ll be practicing tomorrow and thinking about how much work I have to do to be a good saxophone player.”
Consider it done.