Fire Breather with a Sax

There's a new monster in town. His name is Carlos Garnett, and he's one of the most intense saxophonists on the jazz scene. Garnett, whose lofty credentials include high-profile associations with Miles Davis and Art Blakey, moved to Katy in May. But his arrival wasn't met with the kind of public fanfare a player of his stature deserves. That's probably because after living in New York City for almost four decades, Garnett quietly moved into the area under the radar. Indeed, he didn't relocate here because of or in spite of the area jazz scene, nor did he move here to teach. The 61-year-old tenor saxophonist had a different agenda. "Love life," he says with a laugh. "I wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of New York City for my spiritual development. I had 38 years of insanity, so it was time for a change. So I came out here."

Garnett joins a growing list of New York City players (Rick Porter, Harry Sheppard, Bill Miller) who have relocated to the Houston area, and his presence adds another dimension to the local jazz scene. He's one of the few players in the area who cut his teeth with big-name jazz artists during the late '60s and early '70s and is likely the only musician in town who had long-term associations with both Blakey and Davis. Garnett also adds something else: He's as dangerous as they come on the bandstand.

While growing up in his native Panama in the '50s, Garnett became attracted to jazz when he saw films of saxophonist-singer-entertainer Louis Jordan. Jordan's sometimes off-the-wall R&B-influenced performances enthralled Garnett. "He was swinging and singing," Garnett says. "He used to dance and do all kinds of acrobatic stuff, and I was doing that as a teenager myself when I started out. He had a beautiful tone, and he allowed this kind of expression on the saxophone, which is some of the things I still do. I saw him and I just dug his style. I picked up the sax basically because of Louis Jordan."

From there Garnett was turned on to bebop players like Paul Desmond, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. The latter would have the most profound influence on Garnett. The ghost of Trane still can be heard in Garnett's playing today. Garnett moved to New York City in '62, and after shedding for a few years got his first major break when he joined trumpeter Freddie Hubbard's band in '68. Playing with one of the hottest trumpeters on the scene increased Garnett's visibility exponentially, and he quickly earned the attention of the late trumpeter Woody Shaw. Shaw eventually saw to it that Garnett joined him as a member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers in '69.

Playing in Blakey's band was one of the best gigs a young jazz musician could find at the time. The high-profile job served as a great training ground for many young players. Garnett was no exception. "Man, that was big fun," Garnett says of his time with Blakey. "I think I had more fun because he gave the musicians a lot of room and space for creating ideas. He let us write songs, and when I was in the group, he usually gave me extended solos."

When he wasn't working for Blakey, Garnett often played with Shaw, and sometimes Charles Mingus. He had a number of other important associations in the early '70s, but his year and a half with Miles Davis had the biggest impact on his career. Davis was in the middle of his controversial fusion period, and the band was entirely electric. Even Davis and Garnett were plugged in. Garnett recorded four albums with Davis, including the ever-so-divisive funk classic On the Corner, where Garnett plays some burning, soulful parts. "Miles wrote all his songs when I was with Miles," Garnett says. "Solos could not be extended because then he was into electronics, Eastern type of music. So I didn't get a chance to stretch out.There was no swinging. It was a swingless group. It was just the opportunity to play with a legend. That was good enough for me. I had fun with that.The Miles gig turned out to be good. I was quoted in his biographies, and I'm down in the history of jazz encyclopedia books. So hey, a little man from Panama came up and didn't do too bad."

Not too bad indeed. When Garnett wasn't working for Davis, he was playing with the likes of Gary Bartz, Norman Connors and Jack McDuff. In '73 he began recording under his own name for Muse Records (which later became High Note Records), and with the release of his first album, Black Love, Garnett's solo career took off. He made five recordings during the '70s in which he explored various musical directions. His large ensemble, called Universal Black Force, fused samba, afro-Cuban, rock, Latin and calypso rhythms with jazz and R&B.

Garnett's career went into a bit of a tailspin by 1980, and in 1982 substance abuse problems resulted in his dropping out of the music business altogether. No recording. No club dates. Nothing. "I stopped because back then I was doing a lot of silly and crazy stuff and basically on the death path," says Garnett. "I had to stop and get my spiritual self together."

The hiatus lasted nine years. In 1991 Garnett started seriously practicing again and hit the New York club scene. He released the critically acclaimed comeback album Resurgence on Muse in 1995, and between his fierce playing on that album and his subsequent performances in New York City, there was renewed buzz about the ferocious Panamanian saxophonist. The gist of that buzz was clear: Carlos was back, and he was as bad as ever. No longer the young lion, Garnett was the old pro who'd shedded with the best, defeated his personal demons and come back better than he'd ever been before. The classic jazz story -- with a happy ending.

Garnett's subsequent albums, Fuego en Mi Alma and Under Nubian Skies, both on High Note, have been well received, and his combination of fire and maturity has proved to be a rare palatable blend. Garnett has another recording in the can, scheduled for release in February, and he plans to enter the studio again sometime next year. Meanwhile, he has been seen at local jazz clubs sparingly. He's played at the Groovy Grill a few times, and his first performance at Cezanne was as a substitute for Tex Allen. Word is the crowd was pleasantly surprised to discover Garnett has become a "local" talent. He hasn't played a large number of gigs in town yet. Given Garnett's reputation, expect that to change. At the same time, because he is an internationally recognized talent, his touring schedule likely will keep him from burning out in the Houston market. Garnett tours Japan and Europe frequently, and during the next few months will tour in Ghana and Panama and make a number of appearances on the East Coast.

Though he's not slowing down, Garnett already is enjoying the local lifestyle. "I've been having a lot of fun in Houston," he says. "A lot of regenerated energy. And the folks out there, they are just loving the way I play. I'm just feeding off of that, and I'm just blowing my brains out."

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Paul J. MacArthur