"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Kenny G and Wynton Marsalis: What Do They Have in Common?

Two of the most controversial musicians today, in my opinion, are Kenny G and Wynton Marsalis. If you ever want to form an alliance with someone in the jazz community, just start bad mouthing either one of these two guys and you’ll have several eager participants willing to join in on the bashing. Performers who are on top, at least as far as public perception, are always easy prey for this sort of thing.

And popular beliefs are that Wynton Marsalis is ruining jazz with his conservative agenda, and Kenny G is ruining it with his commercial one. Of course, both could not be further from the truth. However, besides being easy targets for critics, they actually have more in common than one might think. Hear me out.

1. They both have an affinity for blues.
You won't hear either one of these guys perform without constantly referencing the blues. The blues is the aesthetic fabric which lines everything that they do. Kenny G drawing more from R & B, which grew out of the loud and raucous electric blues period of the 1950s, whereas Wynton's influences stems from the softer, more sophisticated classic blues period of early 1900s--both being blues, nonetheless.

2. They both bring a sensuous quality to their music.
When you hear both of these guys play ballads, it's very obvious that they're playing for the ladies. Kenny G approaches slow songs like a balladeer, where it's all about romance and enticement--which is pretty commonplace in smooth jazz; however, in straight ahead jazz it has become sort of a lost art. Modern day musicians tend to be too preoccupied with complexity to play music in such a sensuous manner. Wynton differs from his contemporaries in this way. He's not afraid to go to that corny place where you sometimes have to go to woo them over.

3. They both have very recognizable sounds on their instruments. 
Even with all of the candy coating and reverb packed on to Kenny G’s sound, it is still, nonetheless, very recognizable. If I heard him on the radio, or in the elevator, for the matter, I have to say, I would probably recognize him after hearing only a few notes. Which is no easy feat. There are many straight-ahead players for whom I cannot say the same.

The same holds true for Wynton. For someone who's a big proponent of preservation over innovation, he has a pretty original and recognizable sound on the trumpet.  Even when he’s trying to play like Louis Armstrong, he sounds like Wynton playing Louis Armstrong. I imagine that’s why he has the confidence to do what he does.

4. They both really value connecting with the audience.
This would explain why they both like to present music in a way that’s very assessable—but in very different ways, mind you.

Kenny G’s music is very controlled, with his musicians having very defined roles. You don’t find a lot of the long improvised solos and chaotic band interaction typically heard in instrumental lead bands. It’s very similar to what you’d hear when musicians are backing up R & B or pop singers. I’m sure he picked up a thing or two playing with singers like  Celine Dion, Luther Vandross, and Michael Bolton. Also, atypical of an instrumental lead group, his recordings have little to do with documenting band chemistry, but are more about production. It’s all about taking popish sounding melodies and producing them as though the were being recorded by a pop singer. Hence, why he’s considered an adult contemporary saxophonist and not a jazz guy.  

Wynton's approach to making his music assessable is a lot more organic, of course. His band members, like Kenny G's, also have very defined roles. Swinging, however, is the main focus of his band--avoiding the post-modern complexity heard in most New York jazz clubs. Bass players are encouraged to walk quarter notes, instead breaking up the time; drummers are made to make lay down the groove with simplicity and mid-range volume, mainly focusing on the high-hat and ride cymbal, contrary to the loud rock influences you hear in a lot of modern players; and the soloists, no matter how virtuosic are encouraged to be economical with their language and facility, leaving more space for the music to breath and swing. Which of course, is not a bad thing.

5. They both became successful back in the eighties.
Kenny G and Wynton both reached levels of success back in the eighties in their respective genres that have gone unsurpassed. Since Kenny signed as a solo artist with Arista Records back in 1982, his recordings have consistently gone platinum. He's sold more records than pop singers--over 75 million, worldwide. Never mind worrying about another saxophonist trying to dethrone him.

Wynton's success, however, is not measured by multi-paltinum record sales, but historical significance and critical acclaim--even though at his commercial height, his records sales did give some of the smooth jazz guys a run for their money. Nonetheless, since winning Grammys in both jazz and classical categories in 1983, he has continued to reach a status level that none of his contemporaries have come close to.  And like Kenny G, the gap between them and their contemporaries widens as time goes on—which is rare with commercial success.

6. They both are unswayed by the opinions of other musicians.
Not caring what other musicians think is probably the admirable quality that these two share. I've never known either one of them to make decisions about their music to impress other musicians—which is a actually a good quality. Hell, Kenny G made a video with him performing beside Louis Armstrong. To many this was considered blasphemy; however, he seemed to care less. And he never made a straight ahead record with jazz all stars just to prove he can play. If he had, I’m not sure how good it would have sounded, but I imagine he would have scored big points for trying.

And many musicians would love to hear Wynton play more modern music. I’ve known plenty of musicians who’d wish he’d come to his senses and start playing music from Black Codes (From The Underground). But he could care less. That way of playing and writing is just not in compliance with his current artistic agenda. He’s traveling a different path, now.

After examining everything that these two have in common, let's remember the one major way that they differ is that Kenny G is a master entertainer, and Wynton is a master musician. Both being masters of their own domains.


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  3. Yeah -- I'm still waiting for Kenny G to put out a straight jazz record just to see if he can play. I'm not holding my breath on that one...but you can hear that he his comforatable with swing on some of his Holiday records (like "Faith)...it's no Love Supreme, but he's taking it to the bank...


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