Rob Smith Can’t Say No: Kenny G, “Heart and Soul”

Written by Music, Rob Smith Can't Say No

Rob Smith Can’t Say No to the new Kenny G record — but he can offer some non-lethal alternatives.

Thanks to my editor/torturer-in-chief, Jeff Giles (y’all), I have been compelled to listen to the new Kenny G record, Heart and Soul and tell you all something about it. Let me start out by saying that I do not care for Kenny G’s music. I do not like looking at Kenny G—that mop of spiral-curled hair, that occasional venturing into four-day facial hair, that shit-eating smirk he wears, particularly when playing with other people I do not care for. I do not like the predictability of his songs—establish the melody, follow the melody, let loose with a diarrheic spew of notes for ten or twenty seconds, follow the melody again, then close. I do not like when he includes guest vocalists on his songs, how he constantly plays call-and-response lines behind the poor singer each time he/she takes a breath (Carlos Santana picked up on this and ran with it on his execrable “comeback” records). I do not like the fact that one of those guest vocalists was Smokey Robinson, one of my favorite singers ever, and that I am unable to think of “We’ve Saved the Best for Last” as a Smokey song with an annoying sax player behind him—it’s very obviously a Kenny G record that Smokey got roped into singing on.

I also don’t like it when Kenny G’s music is described as jazz, or shelved in the jazz section of the increasingly vanishing record stores I used to go to. I don’t like that those phantom stores did not maintain a “Shit” section stocked with Kenny G records (if I were ever to open a phantom record store, I would most certainly do this, and charge double the suggested list price for each Kenny G record, so that no one would purchase them and they would remain in stock, collecting dust in the “Shit” section that I would never clean. I would write off the cost of stocking this section as a decorating expense. I would also stock the collected works of John Tesh, Yanni, matchbox twenty, and David Hassehoff in this section, all priced to not move. I’d also stock Rod Stewart’s last five or six records, but instead of charging double for them, I would deface them with a Sharpie, drawing little mustaches and penises on all the paper Rods, daring people to still buy them. My mother might go ahead and make the purchases anyway. After all, who’s afraid of a Sharpie penis?).

Kenny G’s music is simply commercial instrumental music. Its backdrop is almost always a faux R&B mix of synthesizers, drum machines, the occasional string section, and a perfectly tuned piano. It’s like a Peabo Bryson record, but without Peabo Bryson singing (except on “By the Time This Night Is Over,” from 1992, on which Pea-to-tha-Bo served as a “guest vocalist”). This music might be pleasant enough if you like to ride in elevators, but it certainly lacks the complexity, adventurousness, and occasional non-linearity that jazz brings to the table.

Even “commercial” jazz brings more coolness than a Kenny G record. There was a time in the Fifties and Sixties when record companies tried to smooth out the edges of some real bad-ass jazz players by setting them up in a studio with strings and brass, in order to make them more commercially viable. Some genuinely great records came out of this type of setup. One of my favorites, Wes Montgomery’s Movin’ Wes, put the guitar great in front of a slammin’ brass section and yielded a version of Ellington’s “Caravan” that’s louder than a fucking Motorhead record.

But Kenny G is a commercial saxophone player, not a jazz saxophone player. If you’re in the mood for commercialized jazz saxophone, rather than throw down the hard-earned for a Kenny G record that sounds just like every other Kenny G record in the “Shit” section of my phantom record store, consider tracking down one or more (or all) of these:

  • Charlie Parker: Charlie Parker with Strings. The ultimate badass teams up with arranger Norman Granz to produce pretty much the first sax-with-strings record, and, arguably, the best.
  • John Coltrane: Ballads and John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman. This pair of 1963 records was Trane’s “fuck you” to those who thought he had ventured too far out into the hinterlands of his exploratory work on Giant Steps, Africa/Brass, and Live! At the Village Vanguard. He responded with the beautiful Ballads and a classic record with vocalist Hartman, who stood toe-to-toe with the great man throughout.
  • Coleman Hawkins: The Hawk in Hi-Fi. Check out “His Very Own Blues,” with its brassy intro and Hawk’s interplay with the orchestra, then his bursting blast of hellacious horn. Contrast that with the stroll through “Have You Met Miss Jones,” which sounds like the coolest rainy day ever. A fantastic album.
  • Stan Getz: Cool Velvet. Getz and strings, featuring the saddest of all takes on the great Rodgers and Hart ballad “It Never Entered My Mind.”
  • Paul Desmond and Gerry Mulligan: Two of a Mind. A frolicking, fun pairing if ever jazz produced one.
  • Grover Washington, Jr.: Inner City Blues. Washington’s first date as a leader sees him running through then-current material like Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” and two tracks from Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On.
  • Charles Lloyd: The Water is Wide and Hyperion with Higgins. Not so much commercial records as the best sax albums I’ve heard in a long time. Get them both.

As for Kenny G? If you liked him before, you’ll like Heart and Soul. Babyface and Robin Thicke each take a guest vocal turn; the former is atrocious, the latter bearable. There are strings on five songs, not that you’d be able to tell them apart from the synths that soak the rest of the record. The reedy horn is there, and he plays it much the same way as he has for 20 or 25 years.

As for me, it bores me to tears. But I’ve prattled on long enough. I think I’ll leave the final word to Richard Thompson. Keep those suggestions coming.