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Kenny Garrett: Beyond the Wall

Kenny Garrett traveled to China to quench a long-held fascination with the country, and he returned full of inspiration. The saxophonist says he was trying to forge a connection between African and Chinese cultures, but that is too simple an explanation for the album that resulted. Beyond the Wall is no gimmick, and its pancontinental jazz never feels contrived. The music feels derived out of Garrett’s experiences in China rather than from any conscious effort to infuse a batch of new tunes with some sort of affectation. The music is not always overtly influenced by China. Several of the tunes are hard bop and postbop in nature, and in a few cases the melody lacks any Asian quality whatsoever.

Actually, the music of Beyond the Wall seems to be influenced as much by John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme as by Chinese culture. Maybe that has something to do with the way in which Garrett was moved, spiritually, while climbing the Great Wall. Whatever it was, it unleashed a new source of creativity in him. His sinewy tone is enhanced by a deeper sense of searching.

The record is dense and muscular, built not only on Garrett’s fierce-as-ever playing but on the seriousness of co-saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, the thick chords of pianist Mulgrew Miller, the pounding drums of Brian Blade and the strong anchor of Robert Hurst’s bass. The great vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson adds a well-appreciated contrast to the group.

The dialogue between the two horns astounds: Garrett and Sanders weave in and around each other on “Calling,” and they soothe with rumination on “Realization (Marching Towards the Light),” which samples chanting by Tibetan monks. Despite all density, “Tsunami Song” is the disc’s apex. Its theme is heartbreaking, and the ensemble expands its breadth with harp, violin, cello, percussion and the erhu. It’s an absolutely gorgeous piece of music.

Originally Published