Why Kenny G’s Soul Is Like His Sound

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Like tides, romance, or dentist waiting rooms, Kenny G always seemed to exist. But have you ever wondered what he looks like?

It is the saxophonist’s particular curse to seize the most mental real estate of his biggest detractors – critics and purists who reject his brand of mass appeal of virtuoso musical Novocaine as a bane to the grand tradition. jazz. The millions who buy his records, elevating him to the best-selling instrumentalist of all time, probably love him because they don’t have to think about him at all.

G – born Kenny Gorelick, a gentle, quiet Jewish boy from Seattle – knows it. When director Penny Lane asks him how he feels at the start of “Listening to Kenny G,” a new HBO documentary about his wild success, he replies, “Underrated. “

He continues in Kvetch – he later identifies it as a “Jewish word”, either forgetting the word “Yiddish” or giving its meaning to the masses – about the fact that he cannot go anywhere without his saxophone: ” I’m never invited anywhere because of me. “

These words are in themselves an invitation to finally discover who is the G Man. The image that emerges, as he exercises barefoot in his bathroom, flies a pontoon plane and signs the wall of his high school in Seattle, is that of a perfectionist, of a surprisingly disinterested fanatic of the history of music and largely allergic to introspection.

When asked what he likes about music, he replied, “I don’t think I like music that much.” He cares about musicians – the hard work they put in to perfect their craft. This reverence for musicians seems a bit hollow when G later fails to identify Thelonious Monk on a mural in his studio, but it fits into a pattern.

Figures like Jason King, president of the Clive Davis Institute at NYU, note how G continues a long trend of white artists appropriating a black form and achieving greater success than its creators.

While there seems to be a consensus in the jazz world, at least on camera, G says he’s never given much thought to her whiteness. He suspects it saved him from being relegated to R&B stations earlier in his career. It’s unclear if G is lying about how new this question is to him, but earlier in the film he mentions how his albums showed him in silhouette – ambiguous white or black – and how he rightly objected when ‘she was asked to write music for “15 year old kids in the ghetto.”

Lane, known for “Our Nixon”, which documented an intimate image of a disgraced president and “Hail Satan?” on the inner workings of the satanic temple, has a unique G-puzzle, which oscillates between moments of declared self-awareness and illusions of extreme grandeur.

In an editing suite, he shows Lane how he puts together songs from different takes for an album he will call, without modesty, “New Standards”. “It may sound sterile, but it is not,” he insists of his process. Sterile isn’t the right word – seamless, or, of course, smooth, maybe. It is undeniable that he is good at his instrument, but technical skill is different from the soul.

Thelonious Monk is worth remembering not because he hit every note perfectly, but because in his mastery he often failed. But from this portrayal of G, it’s hard to say his music is soulless or simply designed to sell the most records. On the contrary, the music seems representative of his soul – a sharp wit who prides himself on immaculately washed white pants, a perfect putt (apparently he’s quite good at golf) and trusting his own tastes above the ground. tradition from which it is inspired. On that last note, there is some progress.

Lately, for his beloved fans – who are treated very kindly in Lane’s film – he has started playing the work of his predecessors, educating selfless crowds about Coltrane and Stan Getz. He admits that he learns of their contributions himself quite late in life. That’s an encouraging note to finish, but it ends up turning sour. He plans to release a duet with Getz’s Ghost, performing on one of his old tracks. It’s a move that even her loving high school mentor, James Gardiner, questions. He might be right, given the vitriolic that arose when G had the nerve to play opposite a tape of Louis Armstrong’s “Wonderful World”.

G seems to learn jazz to overthrow or challenge his icons of the past, and even has conceptions on the classical world, mentioning himself in the same breath as Bach and Beethoven. His ambitions strangely culminate in a reflection of a past that he can truly claim, a Jewish past. At least I think so.

He has just the right song for a movie set somewhere in Europe – Austria, Switzerland, Germany. One of these. “Cold, post-war or during the war, WWII or something,” he suggests, as Lane shows us footage of “Schindler’s List” and “Valkyrie”. G says it could be called something like “The German Captain” or “The Swiss Captain”.

His pitch makes no sense. (The last time I checked, the Swiss didn’t see a lot of fighting in WWII – that’s kind of their thing.) Does he have a song that’s perfect for all of those times and places? Is it fungible and out of context? Of course he does.

“And he’ll win the Oscar,” concludes G. “I know that.” Considering his background, he might be right.

“Listen to Kenny G” premieres on HBO on December 2.


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