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Kenny Garrett: Inside the Wall

Kenny Garrett

To call Kenny Garrett a journeyman would be a serious understatement. His saxophone may have been his ticket out of Detroit in the late 1970s, but his cultural appetite has taken him all over the world. Garrett revealed the depth of his cultural curiosity on his latest record, Beyond the Wall, his 11th recording as a leader but his first for Nonesuch Records. Beyond the Wall is the culmination of Garrett’s growing affinity for Asian philosophy and culture, and quite possibly his best record to date.

“It was always one of my childhood dreams to visit China,” says Garrett. “A lot of my philosophy on life comes from Chinese philosophy.” Traces of Chinese culture and philosophy are apparent in many of Beyond the Wall’s nine tracks, and to effectively capture the spirit of his travels, Garrett recruited saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, pianist Mulgrew Miller, drummer Brian Blade and bassist Robert Hurst III.

Garrett’s immersion into Chinese life served as his primary muse. “What I got in a few weeks from the culture and the language would have taken me a year here,” Garrett explains. “I was in the community, and to be in the community, I had to survive and blend in with the culture, and it gave me firsthand experience in how Chinese people thought.

“What magnified that more was that I had never been there,” he explains. “I had been to Taiwan and Hong Kong, but I had never been to mainland China. I wrote the tune ‘Beyond the Wall’ trying to get me there somehow, hoping that would inspire me to get there through the music, and it actually ended up doing that.”

Many tracks on Beyond the Wall have similar layers of meaning. “Kiss To the Skies” acknowledges the Creator, and “May Peace Be Upon Them” calls for worldwide empathy. On “Realization (Marching Toward the Light)” Garrett sampled a Tibetan monk chant titled “TKTK.” Though the sample’s source lay dormant for years, China served as the catalyst for integration. “A friend of mine, a bassist by the name of Nat Reeves, gave me the CD four or five years ago, saying, ‘You’ll figure out something to do with it.’ I’m thinking, ‘OK, I’m glad you feel that high about me.’ So I kind of started something and didn’t even think about it, and then I was doing Beyond the Wall and I started thinking about that chant, and how it would be interesting to put something together with that.”

Garrett’s propensity to infuse jazz with Asian influence results in rich melodies like “Qing Wen,” featuring singer Nedelka Echols. “Qing Wen” means ‘May I,’ and as Garrett remarks, “There’s a more spiritual meaning I haven’t been able to articulate yet. The simple act of me putting those words into a two-note melody affects its meaning. You can feel it.” The album’s most moving performance, “Tsunami Song,” features an expanded ensemble with harp, violin, cello, percussion and the erhu, a Chinese folk instrument wielded by Wang Guowei. Exuberant piano work by Mulgrew Miller makes way for a haunting melody expertly played on the bowed, two-string erhu.

Pharaoh Sanders’ playing compliments Garrett throughout the entirety of the album, perhaps most effectively on “Calling,” the album’s opening tune, a slow 6/8 vamp that builds endlessly until Sanders and Garrett solo congruently. Overall it’s hard to find much wrong with Beyond the Wall except, perhaps, its unremitting seriousness and its overuse of Echols’ wordless vocals, which give the album a distinct feel but become increasingly grating each time they appear. Still, with a remarkably solid cast of players, it is easy to revel in the emotive fire of the record’s performances.

Garrett’s marriage of Western jazz and Eastern flair and philosophy continues to be a successful one, and one can only hope his future travels continue to provide a bounty of inspiration. “The main thing I was trying to do was to get people to reflect, to take a minute to think about nature, think about other people, think about the Creator, because we have so many things we are distracted by, and I just wanted people to reflect,” says Garrett. “I’ve been traveling the world for the last 20 years-even though there’s a lot more that I can learn, the core of what I understood was that Chinese people were just like Americans, in that they were searching for love and stability and capitalism. I think I’m just tapping the surface, if that.”

Originally Published