Watching Ken Burns's Jazz series could lead people to believe that the genre ground to a creative halt about 40 years ago. Never mind that some of jazz's most innovative albums were released during the last four decades, like Miles Davis's Bitches Brew or Herbie Hancock's Head Hunters. Newcomers to the art form, inspired by the series, no doubt rushed out to purchase the Jazz soundtrack, thereby skipping right over a generation or two of terrific artists. Among those is sax man Kenny Garrett -- or, as some refer to him, "the other Kenny G."
Despite such a horrendous nickname, Garrett has built a promising career in a more mainstream-jazz context. Of course, it's no surprise that he's been able to make room for himself in the marketplace. Just consider who he has apprenticed with: Miles Davis, Art Blakey and Donald Byrd, to name but a few. And although he hooked up with those legends during the latter stages of their careers -- in the case of Davis, he performed on some of the trumpeter's forgettable works just prior to his death -- the experience still paid off. A recent example is Garrett's Simply Said (Warner Jazz), the saxophonist's attempt to push jazz in new directions. A brilliant soloist who's not afraid to go out on a limb, Garrett wanders all over the place on the record. He's most impressive on extended, free-form pieces like "Organized Colors" and on the pulsating "3rd Quadrant," which contains some fierce drumming from Jeff "Tain" Watts.
Unfortunately, the talented alto player falters on a few numbers, particularly when he's making an effort to reach out to the real Kenny G.'s audience. Among those more commercial cuts is the title track, which features some boring guitar work by the overrated Pat Metheny, and the wonderfully titled (but woefully dull) "Charlie Brown Goes to South Africa." On tunes like these, Garrett sounds uninspired, blowing clean, harmonious tones and nonemotive solos on less-than-impressive arrangements. Regardless, much of the record is still spirited; it's also perhaps a preview of what to expect live. Whatever the case, the man's history and abilities are enough to warrant attention. Perhaps not the kind reserved for guys like Wynton Marsalis, but just enough to make him a major player on a scene that lives too much in the past.
The Kenny Garrett Quartet
Moores Opera House, University of Houston, entrance no. 16 (off Cullen Boulevard)
At the Moores Jazz Festival
Friday, February 23
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