Letting his sax do the talking

Behind a self-deprecatory façade, Kenny G is pretty serious about his music. Before his first concert in Israel, he talks to the ‘Post’ about smooth jazz with mass appeal.

Kenny G 311 (photo credit: Dominick Guillemot)
Kenny G 311
(photo credit: Dominick Guillemot)
He’s been the butt of so many jokes that he decided to join the party. The first blockbuster commercial that millions of American viewers of the Super Bowl in February were treated to was for Audi, and it featured a satirical take on a luxury prison breakout, where ascot-wearing, chess-playing inmates begin causing problems. When things begin to get out of hand, the guards call to the prison Riot Suppressor, played by Grammy-winning saxophonist Kenny G.
He begins to blow on his instrument into an intercom system, and within seconds, the agitated white-collar types turn into pussycats before plopping to the ground fast asleep. The not-so-subtle hint: Kenny G’s music works great as a sedative.
“It’s hard to explain why I did it,” said Kenny G (Gorelick) last week on his car phone on a freeway near his Los Angeles home he shares with his wife, Lyndie, and their two sons.
“You can look at the commercial and say to me ‘what you’re saying is that your music puts everybody to sleep and that’s why they’re using it. And that should offend you!’ But I don’t look at it like that. My music obviously strikes a chord with people – it can be looked at as soothing, or melancholy, inspirational, memorable, emotional or intimate. So what they were doing was pretty funny, taking it one step further. Originally, they were just going to play my music, but I thought if they’re already going to do that, then I might as well be in it and it will be even funnier.”
Kenny G was being serious though when he said his music strikes a chord with people. Despite his self-deprecatory façade, the 54-year-old musical icon with the trademark long, curly locks is the biggest-selling instrumental musician of the modern era, with global sales of his adult contemporary jazz totaling more than 75 million albums.
One of the most identifiable musicians in the world, Kenny boasts staunchly loyal fans who readily defend his music against an equally vocal cross section of jazz purists who slam the sax player for non-improvisatory style and the rock establishment who label his dulcet tones akin to elevator muzak.
The Israeli contingent of the Kenny G fan club will likely be out in droves next week when he takes the stage on April 10 at Hechal Hatarbut in Tel Aviv, his first appearance – and first visit – to the country. Raised in Seattle’s heavily Jewish South End, Kenny G grew up as a cultural Jew in the 1960s.
“I’m not sure what you call a traditional home anymore, but we went to synagogue on the High Holidays and I had a bar mitzah,” he said.
“I’ve never been to Israel, though, but I’m going to come with my two teenage sons (Max and Noah). It’s going to be a boys’ trip and we’re going to do a little touring around the country for a couple days.”
RATHER THAN religion, it was music that grabbed Kenny G as a child. Even as the world of rock & roll was exploding around him, and fellow Seattlelite Jimi Hendrix was expanding the scope of what a guitarist was, Kenny G fell in love with the saxophone at age 10.
“I saw someone playing the sax on TV and it looked intriguing to me. Once I started playing, I really enjoyed it, and it’s a love affair that’s still going on,” he said.
The romance wasn’t without its trying times however.
When he tried out for the high school jazz band, Kenny G didn’t make the cut, but by the time he was a senior, he was so accomplished at the instrument that his band director made a special connection for him.
R&B great Barry White was touring the country, and in those days it was commonplace for established stars to pick up backing musicians at each locale they appeared in to cut down on the costs of traveling around with a full touring band.
“He knew the person that was finding musicians to be in Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra when they came to play in Seattle. They told him that they were missing one sax player that could do x, y and z, and he said, ‘there’s this kid in band…’ And that turned into my first professional appearance,” Kenny G said.
“I was so excited and nervous – I can’t believe looking back that I did that at age 17. But if I hadn’t taken that chance, then I probably wouldn’t be talking to you today.”
Kenny G continued to play professionally while attending the University of Washington in Seattle where he graduated magna cum laude with a degree in accounting. Jerusalem resident Todd Warnick lived with the musician in the same dorm and recalled the sound of music always being close by.
“We used to hear him play a lot in the dorm. There were a number of talented musicians there and they used to play together, but of course, Kenny stood out from all of them,” said Warnick, a former international basketball referee who moved to Israel from Washington in 1979.
“During his freshman year, he got a gig backing up Sammy Davis Jr. and we were all excited for him. As Seattlelites, we’ve always been very proud of Kenny.”
At a crossroads between a career in accounting and music, Kenny G chose… guess what? Music. He landed a gig with the acclaimed Jeff Lorber Fusion where he honed his chops for a few years before signing a solo deal in 1982 with Lorber’ Arista Records and its head honcho Clive Davis.
“It was a huge step to sign that deal with Clive and Arista. I was really flattered that he wanted to take a chance on the sax player in the band he was already working with,” said Kenny G.
“At the same time, it was very difficult to leave Jeff.
He had given me my first national exposure and I learned so much from him – it was like leaving the nest, but I felt I needed the freedom to create the music I wanted to.”
BY HIS own admission, however, the early years with Arista were a bit rocky – even with his second and third albums GForce and Gravity achieving platinum status – as he struggled with the label over what kind of music he should be playing.
“They had no idea what to do with me – they kept trying to put vocals on my albums thinking that was the only way to make an impact. And I told them that I needed to be able to do my instrumental music and it took four CDs to get to the point where they actually would get behind what I wanted to do,” he said.
From there it was a quantum leap, with his fourth album, Duotones, selling over five million copies in the US alone, and his sixth album, 1992’s Breathless, becoming the number one best selling instrumental album of all time, with over 15 million copies sold. Kenny G, his saxophone and his hair had arrived, and were reaching more ears than any jazz musician ever had. But according to Kenny G, mass popularity and mainstream success have not been his primary motivators.
“The success has been satisfying in the sense that I’m creating the music that works for me – I’m not creating it to sell records. I wish I was that talented that I could know what people like to hear and then create it,” he said.
“But I’m just writing my music, hearing the melodies I hear, and expressing myself. That’s the satisfying part – that I just do what I do and people seem to enjoy it. I can’t speak for other jazz artists – hopefully they’re doing the same thing, but my opinion is that if people try to sell records or manipulate their music to try and reach people and get exposure, it’s never going to work in the long run. So I never do that – I try to stay true to what I do and let everything else happen after that.”
Not content to coast on his skills, Kenny G still gets up every morning and practices for hours, before transitioning to his other great passion in which he also excels – golf. On a good day, he gets to spend time indulging in both endeavors, but he’s clear where his priorities fall.
“Usually, I’ll start practicing my scales at 8 am for three hours, with some breaks for phone call and emails.
Then, if the weather’s nice and I don’t have anything pressing, I’ll head out to the golf course,” he said “So usually on a daily basis I get to do both of my loves, but if I had to pick one or the other, I’d pick the scales. I really enjoy practicing, it’s not a chore to me.
Part of my excitement every morning is discovering what I’m going to learn that day.”
He enjoys the same enthusiasm about his first visit to Israel next week, preferring to treat it as one of his open-ended musical pieces that may not have a rigid structure.
“I’m one of those guys who doesn’t try to have expectations, but just to be open to what happens. Maybe that comes with being a jazz musician, you improvise a lot. So I don’t know what I’m going to see or feel in Israel, but I am looking forward to it,” he said.
Asked whether he’ll be tailoring his show with any Israeli or Jewish themes, Kenny G said he was thinking about performing one of his composition, “The Hannuka Song.”
“I’m generally going to play what I always play because that’s why I was asked to come,” he said.
“But I do have “The Hannuaka Song” which has an old-style eastern European feel to it. So I may play that as a ‘tribute’ because it’s a Jewish-sounding song – it’s kind of weird to say something sounds Jewish, but I’ll play it and let the people decide if they like it or not. It works for me.”