Soft-spoken saxophonist Kenny G is a lot tougher than either his boyish grin or his mild, atmospheric records would tend to suggest. Ever since the release of the multimillion-selling Duotones in 1986, he has withstood a veritable onslaught of abuse from critics and fellow musicians alike. The heaps of invective flung in Kenny’s direction intensified when his follow-up, 1988’s Silhouette, went platinum. In fact, critical disparagement seems to run inversely to Kenny’s popularity. Kenny himself tries to take it in stride. “I don’t think anyone has been exceptionally mean to me,” he explained in Entertainment Weekly. “It’s the intellectuals who write the reviews. People read these things and think that these are the people who know the most. Maybe I’m a dreamer, but I think the ordinary guy has as much right to say, This is a good song’ as somebody who is in the music business.”
Kenny G is certainly one dreamer whose fantasies have come to life. In little more than a decade he went from being just another backup sax player to selling millions of records worldwide and, following an onstage jam with Bill Clinton, being billed as the U.S. president’s favorite artist. In truth, his rapid and seemingly effortless rise to success may be part of the reason critics and musicians come down so hard on him. “I’m lucky,” Kenny admitted in the Detroit Free Press. “I remember when Duotones came out, and I had a hit with ’Songbird.’ The history of instrumentalists in pop is that you get a big hit and that’s the end of it. They’re not going to hear from you again. I’ve been lucky so far that it hasn’t happened to me.”
It was a combination of luck and musical prowess that landed Kenny his first gig. While still in high school, he was invited to play with R&B singer Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra. “They needed a sax player who could read and solo in a soulful style, and I really was the only person in Seattle [Washington] that could do both,” Kenny recalled in Down Beat. “It was very funny, because I hadn’t played professionally before. I didn’t know anything about the business world of playing. They said suit and tie—and everybody knows that means dark suit, dark tie. And I came on with the whole bar mitzvah look—plaid jacket, maroon pants, and maroon tie to match, of course. I was a serious dork. When I showed up, the band could not believe it—here was this little tiny kid. But I did a great job—I even got a standing ovation because I had such a long solo. After that, I was a hero at school!”
Kenny continued to broaden his musical horizons over the next few years, playing with visiting performers such
For the Record…
Born Kenneth Gorelick, c. 1957, in Seattle, WA. Education: Graduated magna cum laude in accounting from the University of Washington.
Played backup for such musicians as Barry White and Liberace; played with Jeff Lorber Fusion, 1979-82; left to pursue solo career and released self-titled debut album on Arista, 1982; released Duotones, Arista, 1986; has made extensive world tours.
Awards: Grammy Award for best instrumental composition, 1993, for “Forever in Love”; Billboard magazine selected Silhouette as the Number One jazz album of 1988 and named Kenny G the Number One jazz artist of the 1980s.
Addresses: Home —Seattle, WA. Record company —Arista Records, 6 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019.
as White and famous pianist Liberace. His first big break came when he was asked to audition for jazz-fusion pioneer Jeff Lorber. Lorber was impressed, and Kenny joined the band—but only after graduating magna cum laude in accounting from the University of Washington, just in case he didn’t make it in music. Lorber was Kenny’s first and strongest influence. “I ended up playing with him for four years, from 79-82, and I learned so much,” he reflected in Down Beat “I think he was one of the pioneers of fusion—that blend of bebop, funk, and r&b—he had it down. I loved his style. And when you’re in a band for four years, you live in that style—you really don’t do anything else.”
After a while, however, Kenny began to feel that it was time to strike out on his own. His first album, 1982’s Kenny G, was produced by Lorber and released by Arista, Lorber’s record company. The result was not exactly what Kenny had in mind. “I was a little frustrated, because the record was very much a Jeff Lorber album—it really had Jeff’s sound,” he revealed in Down Beat “I’m not faulting him for that. He’s a good producer who has strong ideas and he wanted to hear it his way. [But] I had Kashif produce my second album, G Force, and it sold almost 200,000 copies! I’m an r&b guy, and Kashif is an r&b producer, and I liked working with him.”
Still, even that situation was less than ideal. “Kashif turned out not to be the right producer for me either,” Kenny continued in Down Beat “He’s more of a vocal producer, and he was hearing hit vocal songs and I was hearing instrumentals. The second album we did together didn’t do as well.” Kenny persevered, however, and with help from Arista released his breakthrough smash, Duotones, in 1986. “I wouldn’t have blamed the record company if they had dropped me because it was shaky. But I wanted to do the next record in a certain way, and Arista agreed to try to work it out. So when we made Duotones, we still included some vocal tunes, but I wanted to make sure they fit in with the whole vibe of the record. My main concern was to make an album that people could listen to from top to bottom and like it, because that’s what I like about a record.”
Kenny was not the only one who liked Duotones. The album was an unequivocal smash hit, with the single “Songbird” shooting up to Number Four on the pop charts. The enormous success of Duotones surprised everyone, including Kenny, who told a Down Beat contributor, “When I wrote ’Songbird,’ it wasn’t as if I said to myself, ’Okay, it’s 1987 and it’s time for another instrumental hit.’ I wrote the song, I played it, and I thought it was beautiful. I didn’t think it was going to be a hit. I wasn’t trying to do that.”
When Kenny’s follow-up albums—1988’s Silhouetteand 1992’s Breathless—sei new sales records the world over, the saxophonist realized that his success was not just a fluke.” It’s my commitment to put a record out there that is really great and not to release it from a business standpoint,” he explained. “It’s the thing that makes people successful in life or not successful.”
Another aspect of Kenny’s success is his ability to reach out to his audience. A highlight of his live performances is when he descends from the stage to walk and play among his many fans. Fellow saxophonist Eric Marienthal of Chick Corea’s Elektric Band was quoted in Down Beat as saying: “One thing I thought Kenny G had going for him was that he had a great way of communicating with his audience. It’s important to be proficient with your instrument. Also you want to try to communicate with people. Kenny’s a master at that. He was able to get that real connection that a lot of musicians aren’t as successful at doing.” Kenny explained it this way in Down Beat: “Physically walking through the seats, to me that’s the best. I like the sound better out there than the sound on the stage. Any time there’s a performance, there is a wall separating me and the audience. You can leave it up there or take it down. I like to put myself in the audience’s place.”
Kenny’s innate ability to relate to the nuts and bolts of record promotion has also helped him gain popularity. “The radio stations are not my enemy, and the record company is not my enemy,” he explained in Down Beat “If a record does well, then everybody’s happy. Some artists look at the record company as the enemy. I look at it as part of a team.” Indeed, his willingness to display his talents in remote locations has made him a dream artist to the business end of the music industry. “Kenny’s his own best salesman,” stated Heinz Henn, a senior vice-president at Arista’s distributor, BMG, in Billboard. “He’s just a genuine nice guy, who people warm to.”
Kenny G is the embodiment of the musical success story. Dedication, hard work, and a bit of luck have taken him from relative obscurity to international super-stardom in little more than a decade. Still, he tries to keep a level head. “I take my music and playing very seriously,” he was quoted as saying in Down Beat “I think it’s a great position to be in. I remember the time when I didn’t have a gig. It’s a dream. I’m waiting for the dream to end, and I hope it doesn’t.”
On Arista Records
Kenny G, 1982.
G Force, 1984.
Duotones (includes “Songbird”), 1986.
Miracles: The Holiday Album, 1994.
Billboard, October 13, 1990; November 26, 1992; June 26, 1993; July 3, 1993; December 10, 1994.
Detroit Free Press, August 27, 1993.
Down Beat, January 1988; November 1992.
Entertainment Weekly, April 2, 1993; November 18, 1994.
Born: Kenny Gorelick; Seattle, Washington, 6 July 1956
Genre: Jazz, Easy Listening
Best-selling album since 1990: Breathless (1992)
Kenny G is the best-selling instrumentalist in recording history. His fans have snapped up some 70 million recordings since the release of his debut album, Kenny G (1982). He reached the peak of his popularity in the 1990s, selling more than 15 million copies of Breathless (1992) worldwide and more than 12 million in the United States. Though he was born and raised Jewish, Kenny G recorded the all-time best-selling Christmas album, Miracles: The Holiday Album (1995), which retailed 13 million copies. Playing the high-pitched soprano sax in a dependably mellow, sweet, midtempo manner, the slender, long-haired Kenny G was not the instigator of the enduring "smooth jazz" or "pop instrumental" genre, but he has established himself at the pinnacle of the form, with a legion of fans and imitators far outnumbering the vocal critics who decry his music as cloyingly sweet, banal, and invariably unimaginative.
Of his upbringing, Kenny G told an interviewer in 1997, "I was lucky; my family was fairly well off. I didn't need to have an after-school job when I was in high school. I could spend my time practicing, and by the time I was 21, 22 years old I was making enough through music to pay all my bills." A childhood saxophone student, he toured Europe with his Franklin High School band in 1974, and in 1976 worked his first professional job in Seattle with Barry White's Love Unlimited Orchestra. Kenny G studied accounting at the University of Washington and recorded with Cold, Bold & Together, a funk band that backed up visiting singing acts. Following graduation in 1979, he joined Jeff Lorber Fusion, led by one of the era's reigning electric keyboardists, and then, in 1981, signed a solo contract with Arista Records.
His first three albums—Kenny G (1981), G Force (1983), and Gravity (1985)—were commercially successful; the latter two attained platinum status. Duotones (1986), produced by Preston Glass and Narada Michael Walden, was Kenny G's breakthrough, selling more than 500,000, in part on the strength of the hit track "Song-bird." Silhouette (1988) and Kenny G Live (1989) proved that Kenny G's approach—easily played and digested melodic phrases, repeated with slight variation yet suffused with sentiment, over unobtrusive, often-synthesized backgrounds—had staying power. Kenny G was also in demand as a guest soloist with numerous R&B singers. His frequent touring included an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1987.
In 1990 the newly elected, saxophone-playing President Bill Clinton claimed Kenny G as his favorite jazz musician. Breathless (1992) was embraced by an international audience, though it was reviled by jazz aficionados as soporific schlock and was no better received by mainstream rock fans. The recording industry has not been generous in honoring him, either; he's won only one Grammy, in 1993, for Best Instrumental Composition for the track "Forever in Love." Nevertheless, Kenny G remains undaunted. Miracles: The Holiday Album (1994), the first of his three holiday albums, features Kenny G's renditions of seasonal staples, including "Winter Wonderland," "Silver Bells," "Away in a Manger," and "Brahms's Lullaby," with his personal stamp on each piece.
The Moment (1996), another multiplatinum recording, was produced by the soul artist Babyface using the elaborate process of studio overdubbing (as opposed to live-in-the-studio collaborations) through which all Kenny G's albums have been created. Babyface sings "Every Time I Close My Eyes," and the vocalist Toni Braxton, with whom Kenny G shared a tour bill in the mid-1990s, sings "That Somebody Was You." Notwithstanding the guest appearances by soul singers and occasional Latin rhythm accents, Kenny G's sound appeals largely to listeners who have little exposure to or taste for original music with venturesome qualities. His album Classics in the Key of G raises this point to a height of controversy; in this collection he covers beloved songs such as Sam Cooke's "You Send Me," with Michael Bolton providing the vocal, and "What a Wonderful World," the last recording by Louis Armstrong, into which Kenny G overdubs a saxophone solo.
Kenny G's contrivance of a posthumous duet with Armstrong, a major pioneer of the jazz trumpet and vocalization, was the crowning outrage for legions of serious music devotees. The guitarist Pat Metheny said, "Kenny G plays the dumbest music on the planet—something that all 8- to 11-year-[old] kids on the planet already intrinsically know." Asked on his website to express himself more fully, the characteristically mild-mannered Metheny accused Kenny G of "musical necrophilia" and stated, "By disrespecting Louis, his legacy and by default, everyone who has ever tried to do something positive with improvised music and what it can be, Kenny G has created a new low point in modern culture—something that we all should be totally embarrassed about—and afraid of."
Such indictments do not concern Kenny G, who continues to record and tour, garnering high fees and unprecedented sales. Faith: A Holiday Album (1999) repeated the success of Miracles; it features "Eternal Light (A Chanukah Song)" and "Ave Maria." During celebrations of the millennium in January 2000, Kenny G had a U.S. Top 10 single with his version of "Auld Lang Syne." Paradise (2002) features Chante Moore singing "One More Time" and Brian McKnight singing "All the Way," two tracks that received considerable airplay on radio stations following Adult Contemporary, New Adult Contemporary, and Urban Adult Contemporary formats. Wishes: A Holiday Album (2002) features G's interpretations of "Joy to the World" and the medley "Rudolph the Rednose Reindeer/Frosty the Snowman."
The split decision on Kenny G's music persists. The hearty disdain of the relatively small community of serious musicians and critics and the adulation of a vast public raise the question: Can 70 million record and CD buyers be wrong?
Breathless (Arista, 1992); Miracles: The Holiday Album (Arista, 1994); The Moment (Arista, 1996); Greatest Hits (Arista, 1997); Classics in the Key of G (Arista, 1999); Faith: A Holiday Album (Arista 1999); Paradise (Arista, 2002); Wishes: A Holiday Album (Arista 2002).
www.vh1.com/artists/az/g_kennyParadise; www.vh1.com/artists/az/g_kenny/bio.jhtml; www.bmi.com/musicworld/features/200210/kenny_g.asp.
Kenny G, the single most successful instrumental pop artist of all time (b. Kenneth Gorelick, Seattle, Wash., June 5, 1956). Ken Gorelick comes from a black neighborhood in Seattle. He began playing the sax in the fourth grade, taking lessons in school. Before the year was out, he was first sax in the school band. At age 16, he saw Grover Washington perform circular breathing on stage; impressed, he began practicing the technique, and holds the world’s record for the longest single unbroken note at 45 minutes and 47 seconds! He has been a professional sax player since high school, when a band teacher set him up with a gig as soloist for Barry White and the Love Unlimited Orchestra’s stop on tour in Seattle. He continued backing touring musicians through his matriculation at the Univ. of Wash., backing artists ranging from the Spinners to Liberace. He also worked with the fusion band Cold, Bold and Together, with who he recorded his first sides. Upon graduating Magna Cum Laude with a Phi Beta Kappa key and a degree in accounting (something to fall back on), Gorelick took the sax seat with fellow Pacific-Northwesterner Jeff Lorber and his fusion band. He cut several records with Lorber, and then, cut a deal with Lorber to make a solo album. Lorber cut a deal with his record company to put it out, and Kenny Gorelick became Kenny G and went solo.
His eponymous debut, an unintentional tribute to Grover Washington, sold well for a jazz-fusion record, moving some 100, 000 pieces, as did the somewhat more pallid G-Force and Gravity. All of his early work had a certain lyrical charm, but largely lacked a sense of personality in the attempt to woo the R&B audience. His fourth album, Duotones broke him through on the strength of the monster instrumental hit “Songbird.” Composed in his home studio, with Gorelick playing all the instruments, this lyrical piece of musical confection rose to #4 in the charts. Along with the #15 hit ‘Don’t Make Me Wait for Love” (with vocals by Tower of Power’s Lenny Williams), the album catapulted to #6. Within six months, the album went double platinum. It stands at quintuple platinum.
Where some artists find it tough to follow-up a hit like this, Gorelick did it with aplomb, with Silhouette. While the title track went to #13, the album rose to #8 and sold double platinum within months of release. Eventually it reached the quadruple platinum mark, as did the live album that followed it. The live album, recorded in Seattle, rose to #16 on the charts.
After cutting “Missing You Now,” a duet with Michael Bolton that topped the adult contemporary chart, reaching #12 pop, Gorelick released his major pop statement, Breathless. With vocals by Peabo Bryson and Aaron Neville added to his already well-known soprano sax, the album would have reached his fans on word of mouth. He topped the adult contemporary charts with the #18 pop instrumental “Forever in Love,” and topped it again with his collaboration with Bryson on “By the Time This Night Is Over,” a #25 pop hit. Breathless shipped double platinum and by the end of the century had sold over 12 million copies. “Forever in Love” took home a Grammy in 1994 for Best Instrumental Composition.
Two years after releasing a holiday album that topped the pop album chart for three weeks in 1994, G released The Moment. The album debuted at #4 on the album charts and #1 Contemporary Jazz Chart, replacing Breathless, which stayed on that chart for nearly three years. The Moment held that place for the next year. The album shipped double platinum and eventually sold over four million copies.
His 1998 album, Classics in the Key of G, found him exploring the jazz standard repertoire with mixed results. An electronic duet with Louis Armstrong (a la Natalie Cole’s “Unforgettable”) on “What a Wonderful World” was a highlight of the album, with all proceeds from the single going to buy instruments for school music programs. The album sold a relatively modest one million, peaking at #17. He also released another holiday album, Faith, which included a version of “Auld Lang Syne” played over soundbites from the previous century. That album peaked at #6 and went double platinum.
Most jazz fans disparage Kenny G as a mere pop instrumentalist. Kenny G counters that he never claimed to be a jazz musician! As a pop instrumentalist, he is perhaps second only to Herb Alpert as a hitmaker. His playing has done much to popularize the soprano sax sound among listeners of all musical styles.
Kenny G (1982); G Force (1983); Gravity (1985); Duotones (1986); Silhouette (1988); Kenny G Live (1989); Breathless (1992); Miracles: The Holiday Album (1994); The Moment (1996); Classics in the Key of G (1999); Faith: A Holiday Album (1999).