Kenny G is beloved by the public, if not by a lot of musicians out there. Whenever there’s disparity like that between the appreciations of the masses and the cognoscenti, I wonder what the latter are missing. Yes, the masses like a lot of crap, but they don’t like crap only, and even when they go for crap there’s something different about the crap they go for. I never much liked Kiss, but they definitely weren’t like anything that came before them. Trent Reznor has said publicly that they were a big inspiration to him, and anything that inspired Reznor is worth hearing. So the question I ask of anyone who’s popular is: what is it that makes them stand out to so many people? What’s the single big thing they got right?

Kenny G's got something, and I heard it
Kenny G’s got something, and I heard it

Last Saturday I was driving to the airport for an overseas trip, and I heard a piece Kenny G recorded years ago. I didn’t catch the name; it was something in a Latin style with a leisurely groove. When I heard it, I understood immediately what makes Kenny G a standout to his audience. Every phrase he played was shaped with extraordinary care. He didn’t improvise for days on end, but he put something special on practically every note, and every one of his short phrases stood out in some way. He explored the tonality of the soprano sax in a very thorough and satisfying way; simple as his lines were, the changing colors made you keep listening to hear what he’d do next. He didn’t explore every possible scalar approach to the changes in a boiling river of notes, like Coltrane would have, but he made sure to play some of those finely-shaped phrases far enough outside the pale to let you know that he had some advanced harmony going on in his head.

The sheer beauty of those changing colors was very impressive. And that’s what Kenny G brings to the party: sheer beauty, presented simply enough to allow a mass audience to bask in it while he gives them glimpses of something deeper below the smooth surface. Jazz musicians tend to be concerned with line above all else, but Kenny G figured out another way to make his point.

I was inspired by that recording to think harder about the tones I put on my own phrases–to think not just about line, but about the color of every phrase. My recent work with electronics has pushed that part of my musical identity farther back, and it was good to be reminded that it’s there.

I don’t plan to rush out and buy every record Kenny G ever made, but I’m plenty glad that I heard this one.