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Kenny Garrett: Seeds of History

The alto saxophonist explores his musical and personal past

Kenny Garrett
Kenny Garrett

Kenny Garrett hasn’t released an album as a leader since 2008, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been busy. In recent years, Garrett lent his revered alto sound to two very high-profile touring acts: Chick Corea’s Freedom Band and the Five Peace Band led by Corea and guitarist John McLaughlin. Corea chose Garrett as the only other common member of the two groups, not only for his technical virtuosity but also because of his emotional intensity. “Kenny has always been just pure inspiration to me every time I hear him play,” Corea says. The two met more than 20 years ago, when Corea subbed for Garrett’s employer, Miles Davis, on a keytar. “Kenny is a searcher-always looking for new approaches, always finding new ways to extend an idea. He can take the whole band with him to other realms.”

On his new collection of original acoustic music, Seeds From the Underground (Mack Avenue), Garrett is bolstered by his working band and does plenty of searching, much of it through his own personal and musical history. Better than his previous effort, the live, Miles-themed Sketches of MD, Garrett digs deep on this bracing tribute to the people and places that forged his identity as a player. For the saxophonist, 51, old and new can easily coexist. “I think what was happening yesterday is pretty much what’s happening today,” says Garrett. “I don’t think it’s like a past and present thing.”

Garrett opens the album with his characteristically melodic “Boogety Boogety,” dedicated to his father, a Detroit carpenter who first instilled in him the importance of developing an individual voice. Inspired by the Western films they watched together in his youth, the track finds Garrett dancing over drummer Ronald Bruner and percussionist Rudy Bird’s exuberant take on a galloping horse. (Pianist Benito Gonzalez, clearly indebted to McCoy Tyner, simply kills here.) “The first thing I remember about getting a sound is being with my father at the Dairy Queen, and he would ask me, ‘Who’s playing on the radio?’ And he said that everybody has a sound,” Garrett says. “I took my influences, like Johnny Hodges and Hank Crawford, and I just realized one day that I had my sound.”

Among his other influences, Garrett lists Grover Washington Jr., Cannonball Adderley and Larry Teal, the University of Michigan saxophone professor who taught Joe Henderson and Yusef Lateef. Teal played with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and encouraged Garrett to develop a sound that captured “the warmth of the classical, but bigger,” he says.

In the early ’80s, Garrett further mined his idols in New York City, where he met bassist Nat Reeves, who has appeared on several of the saxophonist’s recordings, including Seeds. “You know who he is from the first note,” says Reeves. “You know who Coltrane is, you know who Jackie McLean is, Miles: Kenny is one of those musicians that has his own sound.”

Of course, Garrett’s hometown of Detroit has a lot to do with that singularity as well. “Detroit” is one of the new album’s high points, both a celebration of his mentor, Detroit trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, and an elegiac ballad reflecting on a city facing hard times. “Marcus is a pillar to the community. Geri Allen, Bob Hurst, James Carter-everyone coming through there at some point had some experience with Marcus,” Garrett says. Garrett played in Belgrave’s big and small bands, and through his mentor met Freddie Hubbard, with whom Garrett performed and recorded. The song also embodies the gospel pulse of the Motor City, in particular an old deejay Garrett listened to, Martha Jean McQueen.

On the polyrhythmic closer, “Laviso, I Bon?,” Garrett travels far from his hometown to Guadeloupe, a nation he first visited on tour with Miles. As heard on this rhythmically challenging cut, he has since returned to soak up the rhythms of gwoka. The notion of experimenting with odd meters was initially planted by John McLaughlin. “I used to hang with John in the back of the bus, and we would talk about Indian music, about ragas, life, languages, things like that. I learned a lot from him,” Garrett says.

On “Haynes Here,” Garrett pays homage to another collaborator he’s learned from, drum legend Roy Haynes. “When I played with him doing [2001’s] Birds of a Feather, it was never about me trying to play like Charlie Parker, because he’d already heard that,” Garrett says. “The history was there, but it’s about being in that moment, that time, and trying to keep it fresh.”

Originally Published