Is Kenny G the artiste we love to hate?

Is Kenny G the artiste we love to hate?

The American saxophonist is often criticised yet tremendously popular and a recent documentary nicely explores this duality, writes Jagadeesh M R

Kenny G

There’s a scene from Chaitanya Tamhane’s celebrated movie “The Disciple’ when the protagonist, Sharad, a devoted and dedicated student of Hindustani classical music 9Aditya Modak) is watching a popular reality music show on TV. There is no dialogue but it’s clearly an art vs commerce moment.

Around 15 years ago, American pop instrumentalist Kenneth Bruce Gorelick or better known as Kenny G, descended on Bangalore for a one-off concert at the UB City. Familiar with his music (who isn’t?), I was fortunate to have witnessed it.

Even if you didn’t catch it on radio or TV, you couldn’t escape hearing it emerging out of elevators, hotel lobbies, and hospitals. In that concert, Kenny G, accompanied by a bassist, percussionist, drummer and a keyboard player, played all his compositions. He demonstrated the circular breathing technique on sax and his skill in holding a note and playing it for eternity.

Recently, an American documentary on him, titled ‘Listening to Kenny G’, was screened at several International film festivals. In an interview, its director Penny Lane confessed that the idea of an artist, who’s highly popular and also disliked by many, appealed to her as she looked to explore the age old art vs commerce debate.

Throughout his four-decade long career, Kenny G has been lampooned by the media with terms such as “safe sax’. He has faced criticisms from jazz musicians, some so vehemently and aggressively as virtuoso guitarist Pat Metheny, who accused Kenny G of “music necrophilia”.

This, after Kenny G overdubbed himself on Louis Armstrong’s classic ‘What A Wonderful World’. The fact that he has made millions from record sales (75 million records to date) while impoverished and highly accomplished musicians are languishing elsewhere, seems to bother Metheny. So is Kenny G the artiste we love to hate?

The term ‘smooth jazz’ was thought to have been coined by his record company after his rebellious performance on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show back in the 80s. Although jazz is thought to be such an open, embracing aural art form of music with a broad and ever-evolving canvas, the hallowed portals of its practitioners seem a little rigid and unforgiving.

Metheny has dissected Kenny G’s music to such an extent as to label it as ‘dumb’ and possessing very limited harmonic or melodic vocabulary and ‘not having a past’. The last comment would refer to Jazz’s century old musical history arising from the roots of blues and also its lateral connection to European classical music through composers such as Debussy, whose music influenced Ellington, Evans and others.

Also, is financial success equated with artistic ability? Consider jazz guitarist George Benson, whose 1970 pop jazz album Breezin, sold millions. Benson also won a Grammy with his worldwide pop R&B hit singing “Nothing’s gonna change my love for you” around the same time Kenny G’s Songird was released. Kenny G himself is inspired by the late Grover Washington Jr.

This phenomenon is akin to the Indian classical vs film music debate but the landscape and mindset is changing and acceptance, however grudging, is here to stay. In the documentary, Kenny G speaks about his fastidious practice schedule of three hours everyday since the last forty years. He talks about his circular breathing and tells how unfazed he is about criticism.

Lane explores the fact that Kenny never set out thinking he would make millions of record sales and was only focussed on achieving a certain sound and melody in his soprano sax playing. Probably as an answer to the ‘jazz police’, Kenny states that his music could be the doorway for audiences to explore and discover the more serious forms of jazz and musicians such as Cannonball Adderley, and Charlie Parker.

Kenny G may never be mentioned in the same breath or ‘Breathless’ as Coltrane. Consider for a moment, Coltrane’s soprano sax on “My Favourite Things” and Kenny G playing a similar instrument. Musicians, particularly jazz musicians would discern the musicality and expression of Coltrane’s playing and dismiss Kenny’s highly reverbed saccharine sound, often having very little presence and lacking in musical depth and imagination.

But these are all purely from a musician’s perspective and from an artistic technical point of view.  But do audiences care to know?  Lane’s documentary bares open both arguments with honesty and directness and how a loyal audience worldwide continue to queue up for Kenny G’s concerts and how his music brings about a calm, soothing effect and why today its more relevant in our troubled world. Kenny G of course is lapping it all up, every moment of it. Yet Kenny, when asked how he feels about all this replies, “Unappreciated”.


(The writer is director of Bangalore School of Music)

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox