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Kenny Garrett Reflects on Generations Past, Present, and Future with Sounds from the Ancestors

The alto great’s most recent release is music with a mission, and David Fricke discusses that and much more in this fascinating and wide-ranging interview

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Kenny Garrett (Photo: Hollis King)
Kenny Garrett (photo: Hollis King)

Depending on how he looks at it, Kenny Garrett’s latest album, Sounds from the Ancestors, has been out for an eternity or an instant. Recorded in November 2019, before the pandemic, the alto saxophonist’s 17th album as a leader was finally issued last summer during a brief window between COVID variants, allowing Garrett to tour with his band and the new music for a few weeks before Omicron forced live music off the rails again.

“When the album was released, I felt like, ‘This thing has been around a long time,’” he says on a sunny late-winter afternoon, sitting outside a coffee shop near his home in a northern New Jersey suburb. “Even now, things are moving but they’re not moving—not full force like it once was.” 

Actually, Garrett is fresh off a plane from Los Angeles. where he was a special guest the night before at a concert celebrating Wayne Shorter. “We have plans to keep moving,” he insists. “But I want to keep focused on Sounds from the Ancestors because I feel it’s a snippet of what the music can do. Once we open it up in performance, it can be more than that.”

Combining a core band—pianist Vernell Brown, Jr., bassist Corcoran Holt, drummer Ronald Bruner, and percussionist Rudy Bird—with a cast of guests including trumpeter Maurice Brown and legendary fusion drummer Lenny White, Sounds from the Ancestors is a wide-ranging, richly textured account of Garrett’s life in roots and lessons, from his earliest memories of music in Detroit, his hometown, to key friendships and schooling with the late trumpeter Roy Hargrove (“Hargrove”) and drumming magus Art Blakey (“For Art’s Sake”). “It’s Time to Come Home” opens the record with an Afro-Cuban flourish steeped in Garrett’s stage encounters with the Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés. “When the Days Were Different” evokes the sensual crossroads of church and street corner in Garrett’s favorite boyhood singles by Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin. And Garrett credits trumpeter Woody Shaw, pianist McCoy Tyner, and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson—“that generation of musicians”—with “the way I’m hearing the chords, harmonically what I’m trying to get across” in the jubilant turbulence of “What Was That?”

Ironically, Garrett admits, “the pandemic allowed me to look at some things on the album that I wouldn’t have noticed. Usually, when you put a record out, you’re traveling, and it ends up being ‘You gotta move this out.’” With touring suspended, “I had a chance to look at the songs: ‘It would be interesting to add some Yoruban chants or some keyboards here.’ It gave me time to think about the music.”

Garrett’s reflective energy on Sounds from the Ancestors also runs through this conversation as the saxophonist, 61, recalls formative tenures with Blakey and Miles Davis; friendships and collaborations with pianist Chick Corea and saxophonist Pharoah Sanders; and the loss of so many friends and giants during the pandemic. He also notes one surprising side effect of the last two years.

“As musicians have slowed down, we get a chance to really talk now,” Garrett claims. “Before, I would see Wynton Marsalis in passing, whereas when I saw him last year in the south of France, we actually had a conversation. Same thing with Terence Blanchard and Joe Lovano—you can talk.” He laughs. “That’s been different.” 

JT: The title of your album is Sounds from the Ancestors, not Sounds for the Ancestors. What’s the distinction?

KENNY GARRETT: The concept came about because I was thinking of when I was a kid, how at Thanksgiving I would hide all of my 45s until Christmas Day. And on Christmas Day, I would play this music, my favorite records, and it would fill me up and carry me into the next year. That’s how much I loved the music that was touching me like Aretha, B.B. King, and the Reverend James Cleveland. There was a radio personality, Martha Jean “The Queen” [born Martha Jean Jones, a pioneering R&B and gospel DJ on Detroit’s WJLB in the ’60s and ’70s]. She would come on every day at 12 o’clock and play this James Cleveland song, which was kind of sad. I wanted to write music that would reflect on that past, the sounds from our ancestors.

Did the concept take on more weight with the pandemic? Wallace Roney and Ellis Marsalis were just two of many musicians who died of COVID in the first weeks.

Losing Wallace—that one shocked me, even though I knew he was having health issues. I had known him since I was 17. We first met through [pianist] Geri Allen. She was at Howard University but coming home to Detroit to play with [trumpeter] Marcus Belgrave. She told Wallace, “Why don’t you come to Detroit with me? There’s a guy you should meet, same age as you.” We ended up on the same path in our careers. We both played with Miles; we played together with Chick and [drummer] Roy Haynes [on 1997’s Remembering Bud Powell]. 

In the beginning, it was frightening. You realize it’s bigger than anything you understand. And with all of the people we were losing, I started to think, “You have to carry it on.” I felt an even stronger push to move the music. Wallace, Ellis Marsalis, then Chick [who died of cancer in February 2021], these musicians who had always been there: You start to cherish the moments you had with them and also to cherish what is ahead.

It’s strange to think of Hargrove as your ancestor as you were a decade older.

We traveled the same path. We played together on a Charlie Parker tribute with Roy Haynes, Birds of a Feather [2001], and I would always see him on the road. Roy was always there, and I thought his contribution to his generation was important. He did his part. 

Writing a tune for him was a matter of giving people an opportunity to hear him now. There’s a whole bunch of musicians who slip through the cracks like my friend, [pianist] Mulgrew Miller [who died in 2013]. He’s part of the ancestors too. When we talk about ancestors, we often talk about people who were popular. You think about Miles, John Coltrane, or Cannonball Adderley. But Mulgrew Miller contributed a lot to the music. He wanted to live the life like Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, and Barry Harris. 

What did you learn from Blakey? You’d been on the road for almost a decade when you joined the Jazz Messengers.

Once you got in the band, you learned the legacy of the chair you were sitting in. But what I really learned is how to become a leader. Art Blakey gave us an opportunity to write music and to present it to the people.

I went to two different schools, Miles Davis and Art Blakey. Art Blakey was grass roots and teaching—like how to build a solo. You had two choruses with Art, and by the second chorus, he’s playing a press roll. He’s comin’ at you. You got two choruses to tell your story. I play with Miles Davis, and I have 10-minute solos. It was different disciplines. I learned how to say it with Art. With Miles, now you get to play it as long as you want!

Regarding Davis, what do you remember of the July 1991 show in Vienne, France that came out last year as Merci Miles!? It was only three months before his passing.

For me, it was an everyday thing—you hit the bandstand and play it like it is the last night. If you played something for Miles that caught his ear, he would perk up and want to hear more. Music was something to live for. A lot of people ask, “How did you play with Miles?” A lot of times when Miles and I were playing, we were thinking about B.B. King [laughs]. If we were playing a blues, it was, “Okay, just play it like B.B. would.” To Miles, it was all just music.

Yet I’m fascinated by your choice of Pharoah Sanders as a second saxophonist on [2008’s] Sketches of MD: Live at the Iridium, an album named after a tribute to Davis but featuring a pivotal figure in ’60s free jazz. At the time, Davis was very critical of that movement.

Pharoah—he’s one of my mentors, my heroes. We also did [2006’s] Beyond the Wall together with Bobby Hutcherson. To me, it’s like Pharoah’s a preacher. He has this spirit, and it resonates. When he’s on the bandstand, I’m hearing his voice—which is the voice of Coltrane and that experience. But I know he’s open to different kinds of music. When we did Sketches of MD, it was because he wanted to do a record with me live.

How did you first meet Sanders?

I remember first hearing Pharoah not musically, but his voice. I was playing at Kimball’s East in San Francisco. I had a record out, [1990’s] African Exchange Student. And I could hear somebody—I didn’t see him—say, “Yeah, I’m here to see Kenny Garrett.” That was a trip. We hooked up after the gig. And every time he’d come to New York, I had to show up with my saxophone: “Don’t show up without it.” He would always say to me, “You remind me of John Coltrane. I know what you’ve been playing, what you’ve been practicing.”

Kenny Garrett (Photo: Hollis King)
Kenny Garrett (Photo: Hollis King)

You had ancestors close to home. Your stepfather played saxophone, and your biological father was a singer.

Music was always there. My stepfather’s influences were Stanley Turrentine, Maceo Parker, and Joe Henderson. They became my guys because of what I heard from him. My biological father came from the church. He was a deacon. Matter of fact, he lived right across the street from Aretha Franklin’s church. When I went to visit, that church was there. So I had the gospel music connection. But my father also grew up singing doo-wop. I never knew why I loved music like that. Eventually, I realized, “Oh, it’s coming from my father.”

You first went on the road in 1978 with the Duke Ellington Orchestra under the leadership of his son Mercer, who was literally carrying on the work of his ancestor—this transformative body of American music. What was it like to be in a band led by someone so close to the source?

I was 18 years old. I had a great experience because the lead alto player, Harold Minerve, who was Johnny Hodges’ protégé, and [alto saxophonist] Norris Turney took me under their wings. They wanted to make sure I understood. I wasn’t cognizant of Ellington so much. I came out of high school to travel with that band. But I got to play with [trumpeter] Cootie Williams and Barrie Lee Hall, Jr., who was Cootie Williams’ protégé. I mean, that’s something to think about. I was learning the music firsthand, and it wasn’t in school. I went to their university, the University of Duke Ellington.

Then, just a few years later, you made two albums with Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw, Double Take [1985] and The Eternal Triangle [1987]. What was it like to be the alto-sax voice between those two trumpets and personalities?

I played with both of their bands, so I think I was there to bridge it up [laughs], to be the intermediary. They’d been trying to do a record like that for a long time. We were supposed to be rehearsing, but Freddie wouldn’t be there. Or Freddie would show up and Woody wouldn’t come in. They finally worked it out. I think for Woody, the late ’70s, early ’80s, would have been a better time. At that point, Woody was at the peak of his playing. He was real clear about his concept. By the time he and Freddie got it together, it was still good, but he wasn’t well [health-wise]. Still, it was great. I cherish that memory.

Shaw also played on your first album as a leader, Introducing Kenny Garrett [1985]. The mentor became your sideman.

Mulgrew Miller and [bassist] Tony Reedus, my roommates, had played in his band. So Woody knew he would be in the company of those musicians. I just wanted to have Woody on my record. I never even thought about it—that I was the leader.

Kenny Garrett (Photo: Hollis King)
Kenny Garrett (Photo: Hollis King)

You were a jazz artist signed to a major label, Warner Bros., for more than a decade, starting with Black Hope in 1992. How did your relationship with the company change over that time? 

Records were selling in high numbers then. Pat Metheny and Joshua Redman were selling 150,000 copies of an album. That was considered successful. It was also a time when the labels were telling musicians what they needed to do. I was already established. I was a young musician, but I had an understanding of what I wanted to do. They wanted me to play standards. It was, “Let a producer do this, let’s take a look at that.” No, I want to play my music. I’m a composer. Once I did [1997’s Grammy-nominated] Songbook, they left me alone: “Okay, he’s all right. Let him do what he wants.”

Was [1996’s] Pursuance: The Music of John Coltrane, which you made with Metheny, your idea or the label’s?

That was actually my manager at the time, Robin Burgess. I was going to do a record with Pat, but there wasn’t enough time to prepare it. So my manager said, “Why don’t you do a Coltrane record?” I was like, “On alto saxophone?” I’d never thought of doing that. Playing Coltrane on alto is different. I’m not in a tenor key. But I called Pat, and Pat said, “Yeah, I’m game.” I called [drummer] Brian Blade, who played with me on Black Hope, and [bassist] Rodney Whitaker, who was from Detroit. I’m glad I did it, but it wasn’t my concept.

[1995’s] Triology, which was dedicated to Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson, was my idea. But I did it because of a bootleg record that was out at the time [1994’s Stars and Stripes] with me, Brian Blade, and [bassist] Charnett Moffett. It said we’d played live at Fat Tuesday’s [in New York City]. I’d never played at Fat Tuesday’s. We’d gone to Germany, and I wanted to record there, just to listen back to what we were doing. But someone bootlegged it. So I did Triology.

When you appeared on the rapper Guru’s 1995 album Jazzmatazz, Volume II: The New Reality and worked with Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest on his 2009 solo release Kamaal the Abstract, did you see yourself as a hip-hop musician or a jazz musician playing hip-hop?

I can’t separate it. My teacher was Miles Davis. I embrace it like that. When I played with Guru, basically it was “I’m going to play some music. If that’s what’s going on underneath, that’s interesting.” With Q-Tip, he wanted to be more artistic. He wanted to see the other side, so it was an exchange. That’s the beautiful thing about jazz.

It was the same thing with [singer] Jennifer Hudson when she came down to the Blue Note on her birthday [during Garrett’s run of shows at the New York club in September 2021]. I felt that in doing her homework on Aretha [for Hudson’s starring role in the biopic Respect], she found out where Aretha was coming from in jazz and gospel. When Jennifer came on the bandstand, she wasn’t sure what to do. But she was open to receiving: “I want to learn about this music.” That’s what music is about. 

Kenny Garrett (Photo: Hollis King)
Kenny Garrett (Photo: Hollis King)

I find it ironic that your own records have been nominated for five Grammy Awards, but your only win has been as a member of another group, playing fusion: 2009’s Five Peace Band Live with Chick Corea and John McLaughlin.

[Laughs] I think I was there because of my relationship with Chick, doing different projects with him. When he was putting this Five Peace Band together, he just had me in mind. He knew what I could bring to the table. I don’t think John knew because we had never played together.

I’ll tell you a funny story with John. Chick was open. He says, “This is a five-piece band. You have something to say? You can grab the mic and talk.” So we were playing at the Tokyo Blue Note, and I thought, “I’m gonna grab the mic.” I started speaking Japanese, and the crowd goes crazy. Chick goes, “What was that? You should speak every night, whenever you feel like it.” But John looked at me like, “No, you don’t have to do that.” [Laughs]

Chick was my friend. I used to call him, and we’d talk about music. He always had ideas for me: “I want you to do this.” As a matter of fact, we were supposed to do a record together, but we never got to it. I’m pretty sad about that.

With his passing, Corea has become one of the ancestors you celebrate on your album. Now, at 61, you’re passing your own lessons and life experiences on to younger musicians. Do you think of yourself as an ancestor in that way—or do ancestors have to be gone to have that relationship with us?

[Long pause] That’s a good question. Most of the time, I think of an ancestor as someone who’s gone. As far as my role, I just feel like I tell my story. I tell my truth. And I hope that people hear that. I find a lot of musicians coming up to me, like Kamasi Washington, Terrace Martin, and Ambrose Akinmusire, telling me, “You’ve changed my life. Thank you for helping our generation.”

I’m honored by that, because I feel I’ve contributed to the music as Miles did and Coltrane. I’m not saying, “Choose this.” This is the way I live. If this resonates for you, perfect. Sometimes when you’re coming up, you don’t get a chance to hang on to something, to listen, because everybody’s moving so much. But the pandemic, it slowed people down. Maybe they’re saying, “Hold on a second, that guy Kenny Garrett—he’s a guy we gotta keep an eye on.

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David Fricke

David Fricke has written about music for more than four decades for publications including Rolling Stone, MOJO, the late great British weekly Melody Maker and now JazzTimes. He is a DJ at Sirius XM Radio, a Grammy-nominated writer of album liner notes and a three-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music journalism.