Strange New Thoughts

The place where I slam down gauntlets and pick up the pieces.

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: 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.