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Miles Ahead

Noted sax man Kenny Garrett will display his talents as a leader in the Davis tradition.


When last we saw alto sax player Kenny Garrett in the area, he was the saxophonic piece of an all-star puzzle at the Victoria Theater Hall in Santa Barbara last March. There, pianist Chick Corea led a Bud Powell tribute band, with Garrett, trumpeter Wallace Roney, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Roy Haynes spurring each other on. Garrett's solos were highlights of the evening: neatly constructed while also fiery and unpredictable, a signature blend.

Several years earlier, Garrett was a stellar side man at the Arlington Theatre with Miles Davis, issuing the most compelling solos of the night. As Davis' right-hand saxophonist for the last five years of the trumpeter's life, Garrett saw the world, wowed critics and listeners and got a leg up on his own career.

In between side-man gigs, Garrett has built a respectable life as a leader over the past dozen years. It will be in that role that Garrett shows up at the Jazz Hall on Sunday night. He'll appear as part of a West Coast tour promoting his new Warner Bros. album, "Songbook." His ensemble is a bold one, featuring pianist Kenny Kirkland and drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts, veterans of the early Wynton Marsalis group and formerly of "The Tonight Show" band, and bassist Nat Reeves, who has worked with Garrett since they both landed in New York in 1982.

Garrett may not be quite the household name, but, at age 36, he's generally regarded as one of the finest and most distinctive alto saxophonists in jazz. Born and raised in Detroit, he landed in New York in his early 20s, and soon got a resume going as a coveted side man, including stints with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Art Blakey, and trumpeters Woody Shaw, Freddie Hubbard, and, most notably, Miles Davis.

Part of the public-image problem with Garrett has been the unevenness of his own albums, some of which veer from mainstream, hard bop-ish jazz to funkier diversions in the space of a single recording. In recent years, his albums have been more focused, moving away from the commercial side of jazz. Last year's "Pursuance: the Music of John Coltrane," featured Pat Metheny, following the piano-less workout "Triology."

There's no chance, in other words, of confusing this Kenny with Kenny G.


You've been touring with this band now, developing the music. Does it feel like the group identity is stronger than when you recorded the album "Songbook?"

Definitely. At this point, we're trying to incorporate new, different songs. I'm trying to stay inspired to write songs. As you play together, you start to understand the personalities of the musicians, and then bring in music according to that, to write for the musicians as opposed to just writing a song. I try to do what Duke Ellington used to do, to write for the musicians in mind.


Did Miles Davis do that, per se?

I don't think he wrote for the musicians in mind. He just had a way of getting what he wanted out of you. A lot of the stuff was written by Marcus Miller or Wayne Shorter or different people. He knew what he could get from you and what you could do, so he would take that and mold it into what he wanted from you.


Columbia has just reissued five live Miles Davis albums from the early electric period, in the early '70s, which are getting a lot of attention now. There is an assumption that in that era he was a lot more raw and spontaneous than in the last years when you were in the band. Is that a correct impression?

First of all, the times were different. In the band that I was in, it couldn't be as spontaneous because the musicians didn't understand the whole history of Miles Davis. You had some guys who were from the Go-Go [similar to hip-hop] school, some from the R&B camp, and myself, coming from more of a bebop and James Brown angle, I could understand where Miles was coming from. He knew what he was doing but the musicians didn't really understand how to offer what they could to Miles, and understand the history at the same time.


You were actually in the band for about five years, weren't you?

Yes. A lot of people asked me, "Why don't you leave the band? We know what you can do." I said, "Look, man, this is Miles Davis." I was like a sponge, trying to absorb as much as I could. I think my whole purpose was to try and come in and play music with Miles, not to show how much I could play or how much bebop I know and all of that. I was there trying to make music, to document beautiful music with the legend of the trumpet.


Often, when I hear some of your solos, there's a sense of your pursuing musical concepts rather than just spewing forth in a musical vocabulary. There's a sculptural attitude about how your solos are laid out. Is that a conscious effort on your part?

It's definitely conscious. I've come to the conclusion that I can't be Bird [Charlie Parker] and I can't be 'Trane [John Coltrane]. I can only be Kenny Garrett. So I'm trying to find a way to make my statement, as we would say in jazz.


Does the challenge to find new things increase as time goes by?

It's definitely great. Every night is different. There are some nights when the spirit is there and you think, "Man, I can do that again." But then I think, "That's not what the music's about. It's about doing things in different ways."

I learned that with Miles. You've got to keep moving. . . . Miles proved that for the five years I was with him. . . .

He was an orchestrator. You may have wanted to come in and say, "I know this will work." He would say, "Don't play what works; play something you don't know." I always have to keep that in mind in my own music.


Kenny Garrett, Sunday at 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. at the Jazz Hall, 29 E. Victoria St., Santa Barbara. Tickets are $15; 963-0404.

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