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No doubt, the man has sax appeal

Kenny Garrett gets Coltrane-esque as he scours the outer limits of the saxophone.

January 15, 2007|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

The many facets of saxophonist Kenny Garrett's musical imagination were on full display by his quartet Saturday night at Catalina Bar & Grill. Opening with a stunning burst of notes that must have scared the wits out of the weekend date-night couples sprinkled throughout the near-capacity crowd, Garrett then ripped into a long, exploratory solo that scoured the outer limits of his alto saxophone.

In the second piece (like the first, unidentified by title), the action was centered on the dynamic interplay between Garrett and drummer Jamire Williams. Like the John Coltrane-Elvin Jones musical pairing, it was a mutually invigorating association, affirmed by Garrett's tendency to turn and face Williams as they exchanged intense phrases.

Further Coltrane references surfaced throughout Garrett's stunningly rapid note bursts, with their frequent use of Coltrane-esque descending arpeggios. Nor was he reluctant to use some of the other edgy sax techniques associated with the adventurous '60s, including honking multi-phonics and the whispering of tapped sax keys.

Having thoroughly established his envelope-stretching skills, Garrett then made an expected shift of gears.

Williams and bassist Chris Funn left the stage, and Garrett switched to soprano sax, embarking on a suddenly lyrical course accompanied only by pianist Benito Gonzales.

Performing a set of three Asian folk tunes -- two Japanese and one Korean -- Garrett played with a warmth and emotional range absent from his first two numbers. Perhaps more important, the music, ably supported by Gonzales' gentle touch, unfolded with a welcome sense of dynamic contrast.

The set's final selection, "Happy People," brought yet another taste of Garrett's eclecticism via a hard-driving funk rhythm and a sequence of blues-drenched solos. Here, as elsewhere in the set, Funn's articulate rhythm patterns provided a sturdy foundation.

Impressive as it was for its diversity, the program wound up with the unanswered question of why, in this startling mixture of improvisational ferocity, melodic sensitivity and down-home rhythmic high jinks, Garrett's own musical identity seemed so elusive.

He's one of the most fascinating voices on the contemporary jazz scene, but it's still not quite clear who he is.

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