Kenny G Blows Up the Pop Charts with a Hot and Sax-Y Jazz Sound
To jazz purists, mellow, mild-mannered saxophonist Kenny G blows "yuppie jazz." And to the heavy metallurgists with whom he shares pop's Top 10, melodic, G-rated Kenny is like a missionary among the Hell's Angels. Kenny himself isn't sure where his easy-listening fusion fits. After a concert appearance with Miles Davis, Kenny wondered what the reticent Jazz giant thought of his work. So when Davis tooted a salute outside his co-star's dressing room door, Kenny was encouraged. "I think," he says, "that was a good sign."
But not nearly as good as the platinum disc Kenny G (for Gorelick), 31, has won for his 1.5 million-selling album, Duotones. Powered by Songbird, one of only two instrumentals to reach the Top 10 in the last decade without a movie or TV-theme connection, Duo-tones has been on Billboard's top pop album chart for 49 weeks. Real Jazz men aren't supposed to be that popular. Jazz critic Lee Jeske, who finds Kenny's music "pleasant if not particularly involving," says his concerts show "firmer jazz credentials than are obvious on his records."
Kenny isn't entirely comfortable returning such backhands. "I can't hang with those old guys," he says, referring to masters of jazz sax such as Oliver Lake and Lew Tabakin, with whom he appeared at New York's Gracie Mansion last June. "I never played those songs." With that, he tries to conjure up a tune from another era: Two-three-four, The Girl With Emphysema....
Raised in Seattle, Gorelick, a plumbing wholesaler's son who started piano at 6 and took up the sax at 10, learned early how to be "as hip as possible," which in his case meant blowing the sax better than anyone else in school. Earning his Phi Beta Kappa key at the University of Washington, where he majored in accounting, wasn't exactly his passport to Bohemia. But gigs with Barry White's Love Unlimited Orchestra and Seattle's funk band Cold, Bold and Together kept him from turning terminally square. Still, CBT's leader, Tony Gable, remembers Kenny as "a real blockhead. He had on square glasses, square clothes and platform shoes. He was the only white person in the band. We made him sing Wild Cherry's Play That Funky Music, White Boy. That always got a lot of laughs."
The last of which was Kenny's. He signed a solo recording contract in 1982, then four albums later hired Gable for Duotones. Kenny G, who will be touring with Whitney Houston this summer, says his only ambition is "to be happy every single second." And that means not worrying which pop or jazz pigeonhole to roost in. "Hey," he shrugs, "I'm just a Jewish kid trying to make a living."
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