The Saxophone Heard Around The World

Saxophone Kenny G
Kenny G
Maybe the biggest thing I’ve learned musically is that anything is possible. Things can work when maybe they don’t seem like they can.                                Kenny G 

Kenny G made a tour stop here in Miami last week. I tentatively planned on attending but earlier responsibilities made it impossible. However, I still think Kenny G is an important artist on the musical landscape, and deserving of this featured post in Weekly Music Commentary. As I prepared for this week, I had a difficult time digesting the fact that Kenny G is approaching birthday number sixty next year. Throughout the 1980’s I always thought of Kenny G as the young guy with the saxophone who played light jazz music. It’s hard to believe that he has parlayed his quick musical start into a career spanning forty years.

Kenny G has worked his way to the plateau of international superstar by taking advantage of opportunities to perform for audiences outside the US. His music is noticeably popular in China. Since 1989, Kenny G’s recording “Going Home” from the Kenny G Live album has become an unconventional mega-hit throughout China: It has become the unofficial national closing song for businesses such as food courts, outdoor markets, health clubs, shopping malls and train stations throughout the country. Many businesses begin piping the music over their loudspeakers shortly before closing at night. Television stations also play the song before ending their evening broadcasts at night. Many Chinese, when asked, say they associate the song with the need to finish their activity or business and go home (although they may not even know the name of the song or its artist). We’ll discuss more about China a little later in the post. Right now we will look at Kenny G’s musical start.

Kenneth Bruce Gorelick was born in Seattle, Washington, June 5, 1956 to Jewish parents (his mother was originally from Saskatchewan, Canada) and grew up in the city’s Seward Park neighborhood, which is a center of the city’s Jewish community. He came into contact with a saxophone when he heard someone performing with one on The Ed Sullivan Show. He started playing the saxophone in 1966 when he was 10 years old. He learned how to play under the direction of local trumpeter Gerald Pfister and by practicing along with records (mostly of Grover Washington, Jr.), trying to emulate the sounds that he was hearing. Kenny G’s career started with a job as a sideman for Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra in 1973 while 17 and still in high school. He continued to play professionally while studying for a major in accounting at the University of Washington in Seattle and graduated magna cum laude. He played with the funk band Cold, Bold and Together before becoming a credited member of The Jeff Lorber Fusion. He began his solo career after his period with Lorber.

His start with Barry White and his period with Jeff Lorber really helped Kenny G shape his own sound, and become the artist that made him popular to such a large audience. He received success quite early on, with both G Force and Gravity, his second and third studio albums respectively, achieving platinum status in the United States. Then came his fourth studio album, Duotones, which sold over 5 million copies in the U.S. alone. The phenomenal album included Kenny G’s biggest hit: Songbird, with charted within top 5 on the Billboard Hot 100, at number 04. By this time Kenny G music was entrenched in popular radio and he quickly became a household name.

Kenny G found his way to accompanying variety of R&B artist like George Benson, Patti LaBelle, and Aretha Franklin. The 1987 hit-single Love Power, a Dionne Warwick duet with Jeffrey Osborne, with featured Kenny G as a guest saxophonist, peaked #12 on the Billboard Hot 100, and #5 at R&B/Hip-Hop songs. I always thought of Kenny G at this point as the consummate accompanying musician. He had established himself as the “must-have” horn player if you wanted a hit. He just has a way of being there without dominating. If you need a lesson on how to accompany another artist, Kenny G wrote the book. On the way, Kenny G was increasingly being identified as a smooth jazz musician. I remember hearing him state in an interview that he loved the simple melody. He could improvise well, but the simple song form is what appealed to him most.

Kenny G and his musical formula has brought us to his fourteenth studio album, Brazilian Nights, released in January 2015. According to Kenny, Brazilian Nights was inspired by listening to bossa nova recordings by Cannonball Adderley, Paul Desmond and Stan Getz. As I listened to the album, it is unmistakably Kenny G, but the influence of the jazz greats is a big part of the album. If you like bossa nova, you will no doubt appreciate Brazilian Nights.

After such a stellar musical career, Kenny G can add international peacekeeper to his résumé. John Oliver recently invited the Grammy® Award winning saxophonist to perform on “Last Week Tonight,” because of his popularity in China, and “uncommon ability to make the people of China stop what they’re doing, and go home to relax.” Kenny performed his mega-hit “Going Home,” or, as Oliver said, “Kenny G is pouring liquid velvet into your ears right now.”

Kenny G continued on his world tour after his stop here in South Florida, moving on to the Dominican Republic and other American cities. I got a chance to look through a montage of old photos and videos as I prepared for this week. There were a few pictures at least thirty years old showing Kenny G walking into an arena with just an alto saxophone in a case. Those pictures impressed upon me that Kenny G is just a simple musician with his horn in hand, ready to play for a waiting audience. True, but the audience is waiting for this saxophone player in every corner of the world.

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