Strange New Thoughts
The place where I slam down gauntlets and pick up the pieces.
Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Monday, June 24, 2013
To Drum or Not to Drum
(That is the question)
Monday, March 25, 2013
Slamming Down the Gauntlet, Pt. I
His humour was of the kind I like best - not "jokes" imbedded in the page like currants in a cake, still less (what I cannot endure), a general tone of flippancy and jocularity, but the humour which is not in any way separable from the argument but is rather (as Aristotle would say) the "bloom" on dialectic itself. The sword glitters not because the swordsman set out to make it glitter but because he is fighting for his life and therefore moving it very quickly.
He came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Young Earth Atheism (YEA) – An Idea Whose Time Has Come
I know a guy who claims to believe Young Earth Creationism (YEC) on purely scientific grounds. No theological bias, just good, solid science showing the universe to have been created sometime in the last 10,000 years. Intergalactic distances, Doppler shifts, the Big Bang – illusions at best, more likely lies from the pit of Hell, or chimeras put there by God to test our loyalty. Wait, scratch that last bit. Heaven and Hell don't even enter into our conversation – this is strictly science.
But now we're stuck with a dilemma: If a young universe (i.e., one between 6,000 – 10,000 years old, as per a literal reading of Genesis, chapters 1 & 2) is to be inferred purely from scientific data, then why is it only accepted by certain Christians (this includes marginals, such as a goodly percentage of Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses)? Since YEC science itself is so good, shouldn't any honest seekers, including atheists and agnostics, be able to rule out the existence of billions of years, billions of light years, and their attendant implications?
Well, I say yes, dagnabbit! Why should the fundamentalists have all the good science? Since their data is so pure, so objective, so untainted by amoral bias, then it ought to warrant wider acceptance within the scientific community, regardless of one's personal beliefs about religion, morality, and the supernatural. Therefore, I propose the establishment of Young Earth Atheism (YEA), a means by which one can independently conclude that the universe accidentally created itself in six literal days, mere thousands of years ago. No God, no messy moral implications, just the time-honored, trusted Scientific Method interpreting all the data available to us in a concrete, unbiased manner. Because the YEC camp is clearly right (just ask them), then their science should be our benchmark. How liberating to be able to admit the silliness of every scientific sacred cow from Carbon Dating to Natural Selection, all without that troublesome Creator intruding on the scene to make the admission itself seem theologically motivated. You see, the YECers, in order to maintain their scientific honor, should be able to say that their science isn't based on biblical interpretation at all. They can disprove any scientific convention, (provided it poses a threat to a particular reading of the book of Genesis) without having to refer to the latter itself. All the scientific accuracy and intellectual honesty of YEC, without the religiosity. The war will be over!
Wait, I heard that. Silly? How could it be silly? The scientists (mostly atheists and agnostics, remember), in their rush to eliminate God from their Brave New World, caved in to apparent realities such as light traveling to Earth from celestial bodies millions or billions of years away; illusions such as the existence of death before the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden (i.e., prehistoric predators that couldn't have lived on alfalfa and bean sprouts.) You see, they were driven to believe such crazy ideas by a desperate desire to keep that meddling God from demanding this and commanding that. Well, who can blame them? Remember, the question here isn't whether God exists, it's whether the scientific methods we employ are influenced by a desire that He should exist, or shouldn't.
I suddenly feel pressure to be serious for a paragraph or two. (And I was having so much fun!) I'm afraid that the real implication here is that religious people are the only ones capable of objectivity, that no atheist could honestly read the available scientific data without an underlying fear and loathing of something more, something supernatural, otherworldly. That religious faith is a prerequisite to honest inquiry. That Young Earth Creationists are the only intellectually honest (or even intellectual) people on earth. (A young Earth, remember.)
There's the shouting again. “How could any atheist, examining only the best and newest scientific data, conclude a young universe without also having to admit the existence of God?”
Well, I'm working on that, But if it ever happens, please let me know. A Beatles reunion can't be far behind.
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
How Low Should You Go?
Some Deep Thoughts for Us Bass Players
My first encounters with the electric bass were marked by ignorance and frustration. In the early 70's my older sister would listen to The Carpenters, anchored by session great Joe Osborne on a Fender Jazz bass, playing old, dirty flatwound strings with a pick. His relatively high, guitar-like lines on "Superstar" mesmerized me, but I couldn't reproduce them on guitar; it didn't go low enough. Somehow I'd failed to find out what an electric bass was. (Even though I'd seen Danny Partridge on The Partridge Family.) Still less did I understand how this powerful new instrument (barely on the market for 20 years at the time) had become even more crucial in some musical genres than the electric guitars that preceded it. Reggae, Latin, Gospel, Jazz - many of these gigs could succeed without a guitar player, but what if the bass player didn't show up? Time to panic.
The first time I got my hands on a bass, I immediately understood its appeal: Power. I was fourteen, and drunk with bass power. It was like trading a .22 for a 12 gauge. Boom! Those lines I couldn't emulate on a guitar were suddenly there for the playing. It would be a few years before I realized how critical and delicate the basssist's role is, but at least I could kick out those sub-guitar notes. I got the powerrrrrrrrrrrrrr!
Fast forward to 1980, when the bass player for the country band I was in got married and left on his honeymoon. Time to panic. But wait: I knew a good guitar player who also plays bass. But wait: He didn't know the songs, and we didn't use charts. I knew at once that even though I was far better versed in country guitar than my friend, that nonetheless I had to get out my Höfner Beatle bass and lay down the foundation while he tried to make his rock guitar lines sound a little bit country. To have given him the bass would have been a disservice to the rest of the band and to the audience, because he didn't know the songs the way a bass player should.
You see, we electric guitar players have it easy. In many contexts, we can just listen and respond, float around, sprinkling textures and fills and licks all over the place. If we need to lay out for a few measures, great. If we don't know the song, we can probably still make it sound good by staying close to the key center and waxing pentatonic. But just try that if you're a bass player. Actually, please don't.
Frank Zappa, indisputably one of the greatest musical minds of the 20th century, described the bass player's function as "(telling) me what key I'm in." What, not to shake the room, rattle the windows and impress everyone with those flying fingers? Uh, no. That note at the bottom of the mix is so much more crucial than most people could ever know. I once played guitar on a major country gig in which a carefully rehearsed harmonica solo ended up sounding idiotic because the bass player played a I instead of a IV, causing a jazzy 11th voicing to instead sound something like "Long Tall Texan" or "Sweet Adeline." (The harmonica player was duly miffed afterward.) And how many of us have suffered in silence as a band or a church worship team is dragged throught the sludge by a bass player who hasn't done his homework, or can't tell a right note from a wrong one?
Okay, we've established that the bass player isn't really allowed to make mistakes (or at least that those mistakes should be rare exceptions.) Now for the subjective part, the one that compelled me to write a blog entry about what register a bass player should play in.
"Why not write about which of the Jonas Brothers is the cutest?" Hmmm, good point. I guess, though, that there are several hundred of us for whom this is even more important. (The rest of you can move on to Stuff That Really Matters.)
Once I started playing electric bass, I, like many young guitarists, treated it like some sort of guitar on steroids. All those hot licks were so easy, since the fingering was the same as on a guitar . . . uh oh, what's this? They don't work? They don't make the band sound good? Aw, man, this wasn't supposed to be hard! You mean I need to listen to great bass players? Great what? Aren't bass players just failed guitar players?
Turn with me in your Bass Player History Textbook to Chapter 2. (Chapter 1 deals with Bach and Pachelbel and those other Dead Guys who gave us good basslines in the first place.) The early electric bassists were mostly converts from the upright bass, and brought with them a sensibility for what's best for the song. The upright only reluctantly lent itself to luxuries like soloing, so most of its techniques and lines remained intact through the early years of electric bass work in rock and R&B. In those days much music was listened to on small radios and phonographs, with limited bass response, and studio bassists quickly realized that their lowest notes sometimes didn't pop out of those tiny speakers nearly as well as higher ones. In fact, on dates where acoustic upright bass was still played, it was often doubled by a six-string 'tic-tac' bass guitar for that very reason. The standard four-string electric bass has the advantage of a relatively thick, rich timbre, even when played beyond the fifth fret, so when the first generation of influential rock bassists began to apply guitaristic techniques to the bass, it generally worked. The notes were audible even on a small transistor radio. And on the family hi-fi, look out! Woofers and tweeters and mids, oh my!
Any guitarist who doubles well on bass will very possibly find his bass skills more in demand than his guitar playing. That's because (sorry, my fellow guitar stranglers) bass is more important. In the nine years I spent in Venezuela, I estimate that up to 50% of my gigs (mainly church and jazz/salsa) were bass gigs. But the best bassists don't sound like defrocked guitar players. Sure, the guitarist may get to solo on every song, but that doesn't make the bass less challenging. When I listen to studio bass kingpins like Nathan East, John Pattitucci, Leland Sklar, or Abe Laboriel (the list could fill paragraphs), I'm intimidated (in a healthy way) by their ability to make everybody else sound good. The melodicism, the control, the deep pocket, the joy - it's enough to make you forget you even own a guitar.
When I started playing bass, there was nobody to tell me that there was such thing as taste, restraint, etc., so I felt my job was to produce the greatest quantity of notes possible. Then a pastor asked me to play on a slow, gentle song with only three chords: 'D', 'G' and 'A'. No problem - that's what I proceeded to play. But then he asked me to play 'F#' (the 3rd) instead of the 'D' (the tonal center, btw.) 'F#', 'G', and 'A'. Mi, Fa, Sol. "Dormez-vouz?" A little melody, underpinning a simple chord progression. Eureka! The congregation possibly asked themselves, 'What's that light bulb doing hovering over the bass player's head?" Answer: It was the cartoony-yet-appropriate visual manifestation of my realization that there's more to playing bass than, root-fifth, root-fifth (insert hot lick here), root-fifth. To this day, I'll sometimes start a new bass student by teaching them the intro to Josef Zawinul's Weather Report masterpiece, 'Birdland'. "Dor---mez---vouz..."
Anyway, time to force the issue. Somewhere along the way I concluded that bass players should generally choose the lowest octave possible in which to play a given note, if the line permitted. Then in the mid-80's came Jimmy Johnson and his five-string bass (suggested by his father, a symphonic contrabassist familiar with the low 'B' string sometimes added to the double bass), and NY bass virtuoso Anthony Jackson, with his new invention, the six-string contrabass guitar, tuned from low 'B' to 'C' below middle 'C'. Suddenly there was this craze for notes below the serviceable low 'E' that for decades had defined the nether regions of our humble-yet-heroic axe. Thousands of bass players abandoned their Fenders and Rickenbackers in favor of Ken Smiths or whatever five- or six-string flavor-of-the month presented itself. Fender and Rickenbacker noticed right away and started offering five- and even six-string versions of their old standbys. Some of us questioned the future of the venerable four-string bass.
We couldn't even begin to question its past, though. It has been suggested that the electric bass (the original recipe, four-string variety) was more responsible for the dawn of rock and roll than any other instrument, even the electric guitar. And you would be hard-pressed to name a classic rock song that doesn't feature it.
That must have occurred to a lot of those early five-string converts. I saw Marcos Witt's longtime bassist, Emmanuel Espinosa in Mexico City in '97 with his Ken Smith (five- or six-string, I don't remember), then met up with him a year later in Venezuela, joyfully wielding a four-string G&L he'd rescued from a pawnshop in Houston. What about all those really low notes you played on the last few CDs? I thought. He didn't care. That night's concert proved it didn't matter very much. Most of us who made the change from four to five strings suffered from years of retroactive tactile memory, especially when we tried to transfer our slap/funk technique to the five. (We repeatedly hit the 'B' string, when what we really wanted was the 'E'.) What a relief to recover our funk chops simply by going back to the old Fender we'd thought had been rendered obsolete!
My all-time bass hero (now there's a new video game wating to happen) was John 'The Ox' Entwistle of The Who. Besides the grinding maelstrom of his roaring roundwound strings (practically his invention, it turns out) filling the empty space that threatens to strand the guitarist in many power-trio formats, Entwistle's sinuous, intricately melodic lines raised the bar for bass players seeking to mine the territory between flash and foundation. I was so obsessed with his tone that I put Rotosound Swing Bass strings on my poor, delicate Beatle bass, which groaned under the tension but delivered a most un-Beatle-like growl until I sold it to a friend who restored it to its rightful flatwound glory. I guess I liked filling out the sonic spectrum with frequencies beyond the pure, fundamental note. I even began to adopt a snobbish attitude toward most any bass sound that didn't do homage to The Ox. (Those years were full of inexplicable snobberies and prejudices. Thank God for old age.)
But why, I wondered, didn't Entwistle play the hard rock section of "Behind Blue Eyes" an octave lower than he did? (The part, BTW, that Limp Bizkit left out of their cover version of that song, thereby cementing their reputation for terminal Limpness.) And why did other bass visionaries like Paul McCartney and Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones venture so frequently into guitar register? Short answer: Basses don't sound like guitars, so they can get away with it, provided they do it at appropriate times. We can vary the intensity of the song structure by playing a part further up or lower down. We can use a pick (yes, real bass players often use picks) to add definition to the low end. We can use our fingers (yes, we need to be able to do that, too) to add body and warmth to those high register parts, thus making sure they still qualify as bass lines.
I hope I didn't step on the toes of those who favor the five- or six-string - I still own one, and I still compose music that goes down there, but I look forward to those Sundays when the songlist shows no songs in Eb or Ab, so I can leave it home and bring my trusty Jazz Bass to church. If you've actually read this far, you deserve a better conclusion to this diatribe than I'm giving it, but I hope you'll settle for my heartfelt gratitude for attending to a seemingly arcane issue that matters so much, yet is cared about (or even noticed) by so few. If we bassists suddenly stopped playing, then they'd notice.
Saturday, January 31, 2009
The Djembe: The Tambourine of the New Milennium
My late friend and mentor Larry Hefty gave me my first opportunity to play contemporary Christian music, having himself toured the U.S. for seven years with his band Shekinah. I joined Shekinah just as they were winding down, so we didn't tour much, and they had already completed their first album, so I didn't get to play on that, either. (Larry later produced the first album I did play on, and many of the others I played on later.) But here I was, under the tutelage of a guy who had played perhaps thousands of concerts, mostly in churches, and it was my big chance to learn.
It soon came to my attention that, upon arriving at a church, Larry would discretely round up any tambourines that might be in the pews and squirrel them away somewhere until the concert was over. Most of you have already guessed why, but for both of you who are too innocent to guess, it's because the tambourine is in fact a musical instrument, same as a saxophone or a guitar, but most people don't treat it as a musical instrument. Since, like a baby's rattle or a car horn, it makes noise with minimal effort on the user's part, anyone can do it. And, since it's associated exclusively with musical settings (even if it's just a Hare Krishna gathering), it must therefore follow that here's a musical instrument that anyone can play!
Larry knew better. Having endured early Shekinah concerts accompanied by the jangling cacaphony of tambourine-brandishing church ladies, he simply defused the situation by insuring that the only instruments heard would be played by the band themselves. (Note: Men are more apt than women to shy away from tambourines,which have been associated with the latter ever since Miriam prophesied on the timbrel in Exodus 15:20, incidentally making her the first drummer mentioned by name in the Bible.)
Tambourine playing itself runs the gamut between crisp accents at the end of every other measure (as in The Who's "Bargain") to frenzied flailing with nominal regard to the song's actual tempo or structure. Indeed, some tambourine wielders seem equally dedicated to delivering a visually flamboyant performance, whether done expertly (as per Ray Cooper, British percussionist to the stars) or badly, as many of you have doubtless witnessed if you've ever been involved with the 'right' sort of church. Just for the record, a properly played tambourine can do wonders for a rhythm section, or wreak havoc. I'll wager that sources like YouTube can provide ample input for anyone who wishes to acknowledge the tambourine's status as a genuine musical instrument, and who has a heart to learn.
But what's this? No girly-man instrument, the djembe. Back in the early 90's, when men were groping back toward the masculinity we'd misplaced in the 80's, drum circles became a symbol of that search. (Anybody remember Hasbro's "My Buddy" doll, marketed back then in hopes that little boys would play with dolls if given the chance? Sheesh.) Having gotten in touch with our feminine side and found it to be a chimera, we now needed an outlet for our testosterone, and all-male drum circles seemed like a great way to reinstate the "No Girls Allowed" dynamic we'd enjoyed for centuries. The djembe became the de facto hand drum for the novice: it easily produced a manly thunder, and even made different sounds with minimal effort or skill. And it was so African. Congas and bongos beg for specific strokes and techniques if you want to sound Afro-Caribbean, but the djembe lent itself to free-form flailing, and shrewd hand-drum makers wordwide were quick to capitalize on this craze. Oh, and don't forget portability - you never see one bongo, and rarely one conga - you need two. The Djembe Stands Alone, so to speak.
As a drum teacher, my credentials are spotty at best, but I do stress discipline - practice and listening skills loom large in my lessons. If I were to find it necessary to teach djembe, I’d immediately find the best instructional sources possible. Better still: explore better-documented hand drums, such as congas (which posess a much longer New World tradition than most hand percussion), and discover what Stravinsky’s “structure = freedom” dictum really meant. Your djembe will either become a much more serious instrument for you, or it may vanish altogether from your arsenal as you instead explore the rich Afro-Latin musical tradition. I don’t care which of the two paths you djembe owner/operators may take, but please take one, and treat your djembe as you would a guitar or a sax - a seriously deep musical instrument, not a shortcut to musical participation. You, and your audience, deserve better.
Saturday, September 27, 2008
A Christian Response to Kenny G., Revisited
(Or, Kenny G. 1, Pat Metheny 1)
Hmph. After I deleted my Kenny G. bit, some anonymous post-er posted the following:
Aw dang, I liked the blog about Kenny G. but then of course I'm also a person who most Christians have made a habit of turning their noses up at while simultaneously looking down it at me for one reason or another, so who am I to judge, oh wait, we should leave judgment up to the Christians, they do a much better job.
Ouch. I hate it when people get that impression of us Christians. Having sort of soothed the "sensitive reader" cited in the previous entry, I'm putting this article back up, and we'll see where the chips fall this time... So! Poster-Guy (or Girl), do riposte, and please know that judgmental Christians are no indictment against the Christian faith, only against themselves. And if you join us one day, maybe you'll never make the mistake of judging someone, and we can all learn from you!
A quick Google of "A Christian Response to..." will find thoughtful Christians "responding" to nasty things like AIDS, 9/11, Divorce, Wicca, "The Da Vinci Code" - never, it seems, to perceived blessings as, say, Mother Teresa, the end of Apartheid, or chocolate. It is possible that someone reading this might even place mega-platinum-selling saxophonist Kenny G. in the latter category, rather than the former.
To fall into both categories is to be controversial. What, Kenny G., controversial? Unlike many other chart-topping recording artists, he doesn't even merit tabloid attention. He's still married to his first wife, plays a good game of golf, pilots his own plane, gives to charities, and is (as the old Jim Nabors' Greatest Hits commercial would say), "Loved By Millions". Okay, so he's not taken very seriously by the upper echelons of the jazz community. Well, neither are any number of excellent jazz musicians plying their trade in near-total obscurity.
Oops, I made my first point sooner than I intended to. Kenny G. may (or may not) be a lot of things, but he's not obscure. It wouldn't do for me to cite resentment of Kenny G.'s success on the part of his more talented detractors, at least until I point out that his detractors are, well, more talented. Even Mr. G.'s more knowledgeable fans would probably concede that, as a sax player, he's not as good as other "smooth jazz" purveyors such as Grover Washington, Jr., Tom Scott, or Dave Sanborn, and light years behind jazz legends like John Coltrane, Stan Getz, Charlie Parker, Wayne Shorter, Cannonball Adderly, or Michael Brecker. Of course, talent and record sales are notoriously lopsided - otherwise, how would "artists" such as Ashlee Simpson or the Spice Girls sell millions of units while groups like King's X are just getting by?
But there's a mystery here, at least to me, and I'm very curious to hear some plausible answers. In their heyday, jazz and pop music shared a harmonic and melodic sophistication that resulted in yesterday's pop songs becoming today's jazz standards. "Stardust", "All the Things You Are", "Body and Soul" - their authors never sat down and plotted to fill the future's jazz fake books with classy chords and urbane melodies. They just wanted to write good music that would pay the bills, give enjoyment to the audience, and (hopefully) stand the test of time. Thus "Over the Rainbow" becomes a classic, while "(I'm) Too Sexy" and "Kung Fu Fighting" elicit giggles and/or shudders when we remember them at all.
Meanwhile, the far-flung genre known collectively as "jazz", with its gamut running from erudite elegance and fragmented intellectualism to crass banality, continues to draw from the pop oeuvre for material. Here in Panama I'm daily assailed with questionable instrumental versions of well-known tunes, courtesy of the local smooth jazz station's playlist. I love Steely Dan's "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" (despite its wanton plundering of Horace Silver's "Song For My Father"), but it was never meant to be stripped of its lyrics, these being as important to the Steely Dan mystique as their music. Unfortunately, it doesn't stop there. Great pop songs like "Smooth Operator", "Evil Ways", "Do It Again" (another Steely Dan tune, violently wrenched from its original context), and "Fly Like an Eagle" are snapped up by earnest smooth jazz practitioners, eager to strike a nerve with an aging listener share. Smooth, yes. Jazz? Well, not in the sense that “Night and Day” blurred the jazz/pop distinction. Rock and Roll changed everything, for better or worse. Its powerful, danceable grooves and textures inevitably meshed with some of the more refined elements of jazz, generating controversy at first (as happens whenever distinct musical genres cross-pollinate), then steadily finding acceptance, even as the more daring elements of what was then known as “fusion” or “Jazz-rock” gave way to high-gloss sonic wallpaper.
Riding this wave of groove-heavy, swing-challenged surf came Kenny G., mesmerizing unsuspecting audiences with the upraised bell of his boyhood soprano sax spouting flurries of climactic, harmonically ambiguous notes, and his mop of corkscrew curls making for a flamboyant, non-threatening stage persona. His records were plenty accessible, with undemanding melodies and predictable two-and-three chord progressions, occasionally interrupted by some more interesting major 9th or 11th chords. Nothing inherently evil about exploiting the pedestrian tastes of millions of record buyers, is there? If they want to think that they’re listening to and enjoying jazz (which could make some of them think themselves sophisticated), well, it’s a free country.
The jazz community itself was and is divided over Kenny G. Musicians I respect and admire, such as Lee Ritenour, Harvey Mason, Nathan East, Arturo Sandoval, and Alex Acuña, have recorded with him. (Alex has also deigned to record with me, so he's clearly no snob.) More notably, though, jazz guitar icon Pat Metheny has led a vendetta against Mr. G, catalyzed by the latter’s decision to overdub himself on a remix of Louis Armstrong’s recording of “What A Wonderful World”. Admittedly, such an undertaking could at best be compared to Thomas Kinkade “improving” a Rembrandt by painting in one of his cozy cottages, or Tom Clancy attempting to enhance War and Peace with some techno-thriller additions. What Kenny G. (and his duet-happy producer, David Foster) intended as one of those posthumous tribute duets, Mr. Metheny instead construed as a brazen desecration of a work by The Most Important Jazz Musician Who Ever Lived. (You can read Pat’s diatribe here: http://www.jazzoasis.com/methenyonkennyg.htm). Such loathing and umbrage are atypical of jazz musicians, who are frequently stereotyped by either cool detachment or undercurrents of humanitarian social conscience.
But here, the gauntlet is at our feet. According to Mr. Metheny, the honor of jazz and its practitioners is at stake. The only response he can feel is righteous indignation, and he is outraged that more of us haven’t felt it. To read his invective is to feel his wrath, and to understand it. I wonder if, had Mr. G. know what an uproar this recording would incite, he might have quietly moved on to the next track. After all, few of us, especially gentle souls like Kenny G., wish to incur the public wrath of a jazz guitar virtuoso with a poison pen.
Personally, my quibble with Kenny G. is strictly aesthetic. The embarrassing thing is that, until Pat Metheny brought it to my attention, I’d never really noticed how out-of-tune Mr. G.’s playing can be. (Me, the Tuning Nazi himself, scourge of countless musicians unfortunate enough to have played in a band with me without tuning first.) But there it is - songs like "Silhouette" and "Songbird", the sax almost a quarter tone sharp, and millions of fans who can't be wrong, being wrong. The small bore of a soprano sax supposedly makes it hard to play in tune, but Kenny G. isn’t about to let a little thing like tuning stand between himself and superstardom. The producers and/or record executives are responsible for allowing this stuff to get released are as much to blame as Kenny G. himself, and his towering record sales in spite of such lapses in quality control are at least as scathing an indictment of the recording industry as they are of Mr. G. himself.
In my first discussion of Kenny G. with another musician, I opined that the former at least had some musical talent. My friend, a jazz guitar educator, disagreed. Well, I disagree. Mr. G. is certainly in league with acts from Kiss and Grand Funk Railroad to Michael Bolton and Air Supply. All of the above prove that a soupçon of musical ability, the capacity to connect with people of average taste, and shrewd marketing can succeed commercially. Even the members of the Spice Girls had to audition first.
So what would Jesus say?
Our Lord always looks at heart motives, which, in Mr. G.'s case, are probably innocuous enough. That’s not to say that sincerity equals righteousness, but it beats hypocrisy. Worse still, Jesus apparently likes good stewardship as much as, if not more than, artistic excellence. 'Master, you entrusted two talents to me. See, I have gained two more talents.' (Matthew 25:22, NASB). Well, if you can think of anybody who has parlayed limited ‘talents’ into more spectacular returns than has Kenny G. (with some of that income doing some real good through Mr. G.‘s charitable giving), then I bet Jesus would have something good to say about them, too.
So the next time Kenny comes on my car radio, I’ll either listen in fascinated horror to at least a few measures, wondering how such Velveeta got past the label execs, or, if it’s one of his songs that’s too in-tune to boggle my mind with its sheer badness, I’ll just ignore it or switch stations. Kenny G. has (as Jesus told His disciples to do), “made friends for himself through the wealth of this life, so that when it comes to an end, he may be taken into the eternal resting-places.” (Luke 16:9, paraphrased). I’m not quite sure what Jesus meant by that, but I bet that Kenny G.’s “friends” outnumber his enemies by a huge margin. Our Lord is more concerned with his eternal well-being than He is with his schmaltz factor. So Kenny, if you’re out there, please, please tune that thing before you play it (and maybe check your embouchure), don’t worry too much about your detractors, and don’t overlook the Messiah. That would be the biggest clam of all.