The Malibu musician who has come to symbolize smooth jazz, saxophonist Kenny G, will be appearing at this weekend’s 31st annual Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl-20 years after his first appearance for the festival there.
In the intervening years, he’s kept busy, putting out more than 25 albums, with several selling multiplatinum, a handful of holiday albums that shoppers have heard in every mall across the country, and a list of greatest hits/compilation albums that doesn’t begin to cover the breadth of his discography-all from the man whom the Recording Industry Association of America calls “the 25th highest selling artist in America.”
“This will be my fourth time at the Playboy Jazz Festival, but the first time in 20 years,” Kenny G (the G stands for Gorelick) said in an interview with The Malibu Times. “But we’ve done lots of gigs in lots of other local venues like the Greek or Universal. We like to mix up our venues.”
That would be with the same band he’s worked with during the past two decades- Daniel Bejarano (drums), Robert Damper (keys), John Raymond (guitar), Vail Johnson (bass) and Ron Powell (percussion). Kenny G is returning to the Bowl with music from his recently released album, “Rhythm & Romance,” which features a pure Latin line-up of tunes and musicians, including legendary drummer Alex Acuña of Weather Report and percussionist Michito Sanchez.
All the Latin tunes on the album are originals, save for two classic ballads, “Bésame Mucho” and “Sabor a Mi.”
“I was trying to reinvent my music,” Kenny G said. “Latin rhythm with a melodic sax is great and we experimented with all new stuff except a couple of classics. The point was to be original. Jazz sees endless old covers and it’s boring.”
Despite the “boring” aspect of covers, two of the Seattle native’s albums went gold. “At Last… The Duets Album” (2004) features collaborations with such diverse artists as Barbra Streisand, Daryl Hall and David Sanborn. Two years later, he released “I’m in the Mood for Love… The Most Romantic Melodies of All Time,” covering such romantic favorites like “As Time Goes By” and “It Had to Be You.”
Though he has become a jazz icon, Kenny G grew up listening to soul and rhythm and blues.
“I listened to a lot of black music in high school,” he said. “The Commodores, Earth, Wind & Fire (with whom he recorded a track for “The Duets Album”), Tower of Power. I didn’t even play very well when I first got to high school. I blew my first audition for the jazz band in high school.”
However, Kenny G said something “clicked” between his junior and senior year in high school, and he found his soulful style that he said was an unconscious discovery.
“I saw Grover Washington Jr. and wondered how he got a sound like that out of a sax,” he said. “I started practicing a lot and, if you practice a lot at anything you get good.”
He also started listening to jazz artists like Dexter Gordon and Cannonball Adderley. He got a sideman gig with rhythm and blues guru Barry White and his Love Unlimited Orchestra and eventually was signed with Clive Davis’ Arista Records, the label that represented him for 25 years. Between 1986 and 1996, four of his albums with Arista sold multi-platinum.
So why, after selling more than 75 million albums with Arista, did he move to Concord Records?
“Basically, I wanted to do something new,” Kenny G said. “I loved working with Clive for so many years, but I was ready to record some original stuff and they didn’t want that. It was disappointing. As an artist, I want to be creative. But with record labels, it’s always about the bottom line. I mean, everyone’s made money on me. But they didn’t want to mess with what’s worked before.”
While Kenny G believes that with record labels it has always been about “the bottom line,” he laments the passing of the old era, when new music was discovered by visiting the local Tower Records store.
“I remember going to a club in Harlem with Clive Davis to hear this new, young singer,” Kenny G reflected. “It was Whitney Houston. Back then, word would spread and you’d go see a new artist. Or you’d go to a music store to pick up one album and come out with five. You read the album liner notes to find out about the groups. But not anymore.”
The music business is tough now, Kenny G said. New artists can’t count on getting featured at the new distribution monsters like Target. And with major artists like Nine Inch Nails releasing their new albums for free on the Internet, it seems the music paradigm is, indeed, shifting.
Kenny G has countered the new media trends with his typical business moxie. He recently launched his own Internet radio station, WKGRS. He offers free Kenny G ringtone downloads at his online store and he lends his talents to a number of charity efforts, including the Los Angeles Sheriff’s STAR organization and the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation, launched by pro golfer Jack Nicklaus and his wife (Kenny G is also an avid amateur golfer, sporting a 6+ handicap).
“Internet is the new primary distribution source and my goal is to create the radio station for smooth jazz for the world audience,” he said. “And, with Concord, I’ve got some great partners. I think I’ve earned the right to turn in something I think is good.”
Kenny G will appear at the Playboy Jazz Festival Sunday, June 14. Ticket information can be obtained through Ticketmaster or by visiting the Web site www.playboyjazzfestival.com