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INTERVIEW : Gee, Kenny, Why All the Ruckus? : Jazz purists haven't caught Kenny G fever like the rest of the world, including the First Fan. But Mr. G really isn't fazed--life is beautiful and record sales are awesome. (So there.)

September 26, 1993|DON HECKMAN | Don Heckman writes about jazz for Calendar.

"This is sooo fun!" says Kenny G, strolling out onstage before yet another sold-out crowd. Ever amiable, ever eager to please, enjoying every minute of his remarkably successful career, the slender Pied Piper of Pop has yet to meet an audience he hasn't loved.

"Sure, I love people," says the saxophonist, who opens a four-night stand at the Greek Theatre on Wednesday, followed by a performance at the Pacific Amphitheatre next Sunday, "and I want to communicate with people. I mean, what is music anyway? It's a form of communication--at least for me it is. And that's why I play the kind of music that I think--that I hope--can communicate with people."

"Communicate" may not the right description. "And sell records like crazy" might be a more appropriate addendum. Kenny G., whose last name is Gorelick, has been a force in the pop music marketplace since his career exploded in 1987 with the release of his fourth album, the multi-platinum "Duotones," and the hit single "Songbird."

"I was really amazed when I started hearing 'Songbird' on the radio," Gorelick, 37, recalls. "I couldn't believe that the record company promotion department had actually convinced radio music directors to play it--because there wasn't anything like it on the radio at the time. And there was some resistance, obviously. This wasn't the kind of music that you would hear on KIIS-FM. But all of a sudden I started hearing it--and on stations where you'd hear a Whitney Houston song or a Pink Floyd song. I mean, I was pinching myself and saying, 'Am I dreaming this, or is this for real?' "

*

"Duotones" was followed by "Silhouette," "Kenny G Live" and the current "Breathless," which together have generated sales of more than 20 million albums. "Breathless" entered the Billboard 200 at No. 9 and peaked at No. 2; earlier this month, after 42 weeks on the chart, it was still No. 21.

Record companies are reluctant to provide details of specific artist deals. But it would not be unreasonable, says Bill Traut of Open Door Management, a veteran jazz and pop producer and manager, "to expect that Kenny is earning in the neighborhood of $1.25 an album." Added to that are the revenues from his frequent international tours, often including four and five sold-out performances at major venues. And the live performances always affect his record sales. According to Billboard, "Breathless" had sold about 15,000 units before a five-day publicity tour by Gorelick. Afterward, sales topped 150,000, the album went double platinum and was No. 1 on the Australia-New Zealand album charts.

How does that compare to, say, Miles Davis or Duke Ellington--among the most visible artists and instrumentalists in the history of jazz and popular music? "There's not much comparison," says jazz producer Ralph Jungheim. "With one or two exceptions, Ellington rarely sold records in big numbers, and he always said his orchestra was a hobby he supported with his songwriting income."

And although Davis scored well in his last few years with Warner Bros., "his numbers weren't at Kenny G's level," Traut says. "He may have been making a similar royalty figure, but he simply didn't sell as many albums."

So what's going on here? How does a moderately gifted saxophone player from Seattle become what his record company describes as "the No. 1 instrumental artist of all time"? Even granting the hyperbole of the statement (which, in terms of sheer commercial achievement, probably could be challenged by Herb Alpert), there's no questioning the impact Gorelick has had on the marketplace, as well as on other saxophonists.

Gorelick, identified as President Clinton's favorite sax player (a certification that may have lowered Clinton's popularity rating in the opinions of many traditional jazz fans), has pretty well defined the instrument as a new, upfront pop music voice of the '90s. It is the rare jazz band these days that does not prominently feature a saxophone player, and a growing list of young saxophonists have been releasing solo albums.

Not everyone thinks a trend is in the wind, however.

Don Lucoff of New York City's DL Media, a longtime handler of both jazz and new adult contemporary artists, believes that Gorelick's success has been strongly associated with the emergence of NAC--the new adult contemporary radio format, an instrumental-oriented programming mix that can include artists ranging from George Benson and Brenda Russell to Donald Fagen and Ottmar Leibert.

"The ironic thing about the NAC stations," Lucoff says, "is that they use the word jazz for credibility--for so-called coolness, and a connection with something that's hip. But they don't play jazz. And that's the oxymoron of this whole NAC radio phenomenon--how they use jazz in a marketing sense and then play Kenny G instead of Joe Henderson."

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