Kenny Garrett Vs. AI

Kenny Garrett Vs. AI

Alto and soprano saxophonist Kenny Garrett is an explorer. He’s constantly seeking new situations, new sources of inspiration, and new ways to expand the boundaries of his own musical conception.

Many people know Garrett as Miles Davis’ last saxophonist. He joined the trumpeter’s band in 1987 and remained with him until Davis’ death in 1991. He can be heard on the 1989 studio album Amandla, which fused jazz and funk with go-go beats and zouk (a dance music played in the French Antilles), and on Live Around The World and other posthumous Davis live albums. But he was also maintaining a solo career at the same time, and before joining Davis, he’d played with Woody Shaw, Art Blakey, and been a member of a “young lions”-style group assembled by Blue Note Records called Out Of The Blue. And in the ’90s, he was part of Guru’s Jazzmatazz project and played on Q-Tip’s album Kamaal The Abstract. He even appeared on Santana’s live album All That I Am, soloing on a medley of “Evil Ways” and John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.”

Garrett’s musical adventurism has frequently drawn him to the music of countries and cultures other than his own. “When I played with Miles and we were in Israel, Miles would give me music from, you know, from Israel, or from the Middle East, he was giving me music,” he told me. “I would go to Greece and people were giving me music. I would go [to] Japan and they were giving me what they call enka.” On his 2002 album Happy People, he recorded a medley of traditional Asian music that included the Japanese songs “Akatonbo” and “Tsubasawo Kudasai” as well as the Korean song “Arirang.” He’s also written pieces based on gwo-ka music from Guadeloupe, and incorporated African and Asian instruments into his arrangements on his albums African Exchange Student and Beyond The Wall.

While Garrett is at his core a hard-swinging bebop player from Detroit who got his start as a teenager in the Duke Ellington Orchestra, he’s recorded and performed in so many different contexts over the last 40 years that he’s able to adapt to almost anything. He’s chameleonic, yet recognizable, and he maintains that balance by always asking what the person hiring him wants from him. And sometimes it takes a little while to get there. But he makes it work.

“I was doing a record with Sting, with [producer] Robert Sadin,” he recalled. “He called me in, he said, ‘Can you be in the studio in an hour?’ I said yes. Now, he doesn’t know that I have been listening to Coltrane. And you call me to do a Sting record,” he said, laughing. “So I get there, you know. It’s so funny. My ears are wide open. And he says, ‘Let’s play,’ and I’m thinking, Really? So I’m listening to Coltrane, so that sound, harmonically, is coming out. But that’s not what he wants, because the music doesn’t really call for that. Well, he said just to play…” Eventually, through multiple takes and judicious editing, Sabin got what he wanted, which was the 45-second soprano sax solo that concludes “The Burning Babe” on the album If On A Winter’s Night…

One of my favorite Garrett records is one of the most hardcore jazz discs of the ’90s. His sixth solo album, 1995’s Triology, was recorded with drummer Brian Blade and two different bassists — Charnett Moffett on three tracks, and Kiyoshi Kitagawa on seven more. It’s a collection of standards and two Garrett originals, almost all taken at breakneck bebop tempos and displaying extraordinary technical command of the horn.

“I kind of thought it was important for me to do it,” he said. “It’s a blessing that it ended up being that I was brave enough to do that and to choose tunes like ‘Delfeayo’s Dilemma’ by Wynton Marsalis and ‘Pressing The Issue’ by Mulgrew Miller. I mean, those are hard tunes to play without a piano player.”

The following year, he was a guest on Branford Marsalis’s equally uncompromising trio album The Dark Keys. “Dark Keys came when I was playing with Chick Corea. I think we were in someplace like Singapore, and Branford had called me to do the record, so I flew back after I did a couple of gigs with Chick. And it was very exciting, because, you know, Branford’s a friend of mine, and I have a lot of respect for him… it was definitely a setting where we were open harmonically, we could try some things, you know.”

In the early 2000s, Garrett formed what seemed from the outside like a surprising musical alliance. His 2006 album Beyond The Wall featured Pharoah Sanders and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, and the music was a blend of vamping, trancelike spiritual jazz and sounds from around the world, including Chinese instruments and a vocal ensemble. Two years later, Garrett and Sanders released Sketches Of MD – Live At The Iridium, a burning, intense set with a title track that was a nod to Davis.

“Pharoah Sanders was one of my heroes. [But] when I would go to hear Pharoah, he would say, ‘Where’s your horn?’ I’m like, ‘I just came to listen to you,'” Garrett recalled. He first met Sanders after the release of his fourth album, 1990’s African Exchange Student. “I was playing at Kimball’s East, and I heard this voice behind the curtain. It sounded like Pharoah Sanders. And he said, ‘I’m coming to hear Kenny Garrett.’ I was like, wow, Pharoah Sanders is coming to hear me. I was excited, and that’s when we kind of started that relationship. I would see him in New York sometimes, and he would just tell me, ‘I’m going to be playing,’ or he would invite me by his house and we would kind of practice together and try different things.”

Garrett’s new album is a departure even for such an adventurous musical traveler. Who Killed AI? is entirely electronic; the tracks were created by producer Svoy (pronounced “Savoy”) using Logic and synthesizers, and Garrett solos over them. To be clear, the album wasn’t made with AI. Its title seems to conflate AI with electronic music, or else it’s a gauntlet throwdown along the lines of “Let’s see AI do this.”

At times, Who Killed AI? has the feel of Miles Davis’ final studio recording, Doo-Bop, on which he played over tracks created by Easy Mo Bee and other hip-hop producers, but at other times the beats are hard, almost industrial. The synths are densely layered, shifting from almost ambient sound washes and mournful melodies to deep bass throbs and hard techno riffs. There are breakbeats and 4/4 thump. On “Miles Running Down AI,” the synths are so grimy they sound like the organ stabs and funk guitars of 1970s Davis tracks like “Rated X” and “Black Satin,” and on “Divergence Tu-Dah,” Garrett plays a soprano sax solo through so many effects it sounds like a blues-rock guitar, while also adding robotic, feminine vocals.

“Svoy was living, literally two minutes from me, and we just started collaborating,” Garrett said. “He would show up with his computer in my living room, and he would just have some music and didn’t have a melody, and so I would just listen to it. It was really relaxed. And I would just kind of create a melody and play off the top, just like that. Or he would come up with a melody and then I would hear something and say, well, I think we should do this. It was always like he was painting the canvas. But then I would say, ‘Why don’t you write me a song like what I did with Miles’… or I would say, ‘Write something like this, and then I’ll create a melody,’ or he’d send me something. I’d say, ‘Well, let’s change it a little bit here,’ you know, so it was just direction, but at the same time, just trying to be open.”

The freedom of working to his own schedule removed the pressure of a traditional session. “It wasn’t like in a studio sometimes, like where there’s a time restraint. ‘We got to do this. We got to get the sound here.’ None of that. We’ve got a microphone, we just play. And I think that’s what to me makes it a great CD, because I’m not trying to do anything that I wouldn’t normally do. I’m just playing music. He created this canvas. I’m saying, ‘OK, I’ll paint something on this.'”

Garrett views Who Killed AI? not just as a one-off experiment, but as a potential calling card that will allow future creative partners to think of him differently, and to be open to musical possibilities beyond jazz. He cites Pharoah Sanders’ final album as an inspiration. “[Svoy] did a great job allowing that space for me to kind of create. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do for years. I’m still waiting to collaborate with other people [who were] writing some music with me in mind, you know, and let’s see what happens. Pharaoh did a record like that with Floating Points; I would love to have done something like that, but a lot of times people don’t know what you can do, so they never would call you for things like that. But I hope after this situation, people will be open to trying — ‘Oh, let me call Kenny Garrett. We could try something here or try something there.’ I mean, I’m just really trying to continue to grow as a musician and try things, you know?”



The Lady Day Big Band - "Chilojo"

The Lady Day Big Band is an all-female project led by singer Lana Crowster, keyboardist Amanda Tiffin and trombonist Kelly Bell. The full ensemble numbers about two dozen, including four trumpets, four trombones, five saxophones (alto, tenor and baritone), flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, keyboards, guitar, bass and drums. Their debut album combines original pieces with interpretations of jazz, pop, and traditional African songs — they sing in English, Afrikaans and Xhosa, and the album ends with a six-part “South African Vintage Pop Medley.”

“Chilojo,” written by Tiffin, has a deep, almost dubby bass line over which the horns fly like chattering birds and what sounds like an mbira, but might be a keyboard, twitters in the middle. Baritone saxophonist Georgia Jones gets some prime territory, with the other saxes responding to her pulsing line and the trumpets and trombones swirling around, eventually giving way to flutes and clarinets. (From Livus’umoya, out now via the Lady Day Big Band.)


Karl-Martin Almqvist Ababhemu Quartet - "Smangaliso"

Swedish saxophonist Karl-Martin Almqvist recorded this album in 2022 with pianist Nduduzo Makhathini, bassist Magne Tormodsæter, and drummer Ayanda Sikade. The four of them first worked together on Makhathini’s 2015 album Listening To The Ground, and this reunion, recorded a few days after a European festival performance in 2022, is a deeply felt spiritual jazz excursion. Although Almqvist, who’s been playing professionally in Sweden and around the world for over 30 years, gives himself plenty of solo space, “Smangaliso” is in many ways a showcase for Makhathini, who’s singing/preaching as well as playing the piano; the saxophonist is at times a background voice, murmuring and wailing as Makhathini discourses in isiZulu and rolls out shimmering piano lines. Tormodsæter and Sikade are a subtle but passionate team, their surges and washes throbbing with emotion. This isn’t “spiritual jazz” in the 2020s sense of that term, but it’s deeply spiritual music nonetheless. (From The Travelers, out now via Ropeadope.)


Melissa Aldana -"A Story"

Saxophonist Melissa Aldana has made seven albums as a leader; she was also a founding member of the group Artemis. This is her second release on Blue Note, after albums on Concord, Motéma, Inner Circle Music, and Wommusic, and it features pianist Fabian Almazan, guitarist Lage Lund, bassist Pablo Menares, and drummer Kush Abadey. This is almost the same band as her last album, 2022’s 12 Stars, except for Almazan, who’s replaced Sullivan Fortner. (Menares has been on every Aldana record since 2014’s Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio.) Aldana is a soft-spoken saxophonist; she claims Sonny Rollins as a major influence, but I always hear more of the probing introspection of Wayne Shorter in her playing. Here’s a clip of her and the band from this record playing the gentle, swaying “A Story” live in Switzerland back in January. Everyone is deeply engaged, and you will be too. (From Echoes Of The Inner Prophet, out now via Blue Note.)


Yamile Burich - "Ansiedad"

Yamile Burich is a saxophonist (mostly alto, but also tenor and soprano) from Buenos Aires whom I discovered while searching Bandcamp. Her ninth and latest album, Agosto, features eight originals and a version of the standard “A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square.” Burich is a straightforward player dwelling comfortably within the bebop tradition; on alto, in particular, she seems to be coming straight out of the Charlie Parker/Sonny Stitt lineage, playing pretty, even romantic phrases that always have an easily trackable logic. She’s backed by pianist Gustavo Silva, bassist Maia Korosec, and drummer Hernan Rodriguez.

The first track is called “Ansiedad,” which translates to “Anxiety.” I don’t know how accurate that title is, because sure, there’s some tension in the way the bassist bounces in place as the pianist hammers the chords home, and the drumming has a twitchy energy, but as the piece gets rolling, everyone plays with extraordinary assurance and fluidity. (From Agosto, out now via Yamile Burich.)


Charles McPherson - "Surge"

Alto saxophonist Charles McPherson, the Last Bebopper Standing, leads a killer band on his latest album — he’s joined up front by trumpeter Terrell Stafford, with pianist Jeb Patton, bassist David Wong, and drummer Billy Drummond providing support. It was recorded live in November 2023, and carries a dedication to pianist Barry Harris, who was a mentor to McPherson throughout his life, starting in both men’s hometown of Detroit. There’s also a track paying tribute to trumpeter Lonnie Hillyer, a childhood friend of McPherson’s who played with him in Charles Mingus’s band in the early ’70s. The album kicks off with “Surge,” a classic hard bop melody laid over a loping groove that Drummond keeps twitching with precisely timed outbursts. Stafford takes the first solo in a Lee Morgan-esque style; after a machine-gun blast from the drums, McPherson floats in calmly, unspooling complex lines that nonetheless stay anchored in the blues and always resolve conclusively. (From Reverence, out now via Smoke Sessions.)


Dayna Stephens - "E.S.P"

Saxophonist Dayna Stephens is the definition of a gentle giant; he’s a big dude (who used to be a lot bigger) with a real fondness and feel for tender ballads, and an inexplicable attraction to the Electronic Wind Instrument (EWI), which is exactly what you think, and sounds like a synthesized slide whistle. On this album, he’s working with guitarist Emmanuel Michael, bassist Kanoa Mendenhall, and drummer Jongkuk Kim on a collection of mostly original compositions that blend jazz and soft-focus indie/alt rock. Trumpeter Jeremy Pelt produced the album, and on one track, he steps in as a guest. The quartet-turned-quintet’s version of Miles Davis’ “E.S.P” starts with just bass and guitar, before the horns play through composer Wayne Shorter’s long melody line. Pelt’s solo is full of sharp, leaping high notes, with Stephens offering a mellower rejoinder, and Michael’s spiky guitar solo reminds me of when Bill Frisell was interesting. (From Closer Than We Think, out now via Cellar Live.)


Jeremy Pelt - "Earl J"

Jeremy Pelt puts out an album of his own every year like clockwork, and he rarely repeats himself. This time, the band includes vibraphonist Jalen Baker, guitarist Alex Wintz, bassist Leighton McKinley, and drummer Allan Mednard, with Frank LoCrasto playing piano on two tracks. But another key collaborator is drummer/producer Deantoni Parks, who’s worked with André 3000 and Meshell Ndegeocello, among others. And this is an electronics-tinged album, with Pelt’s horn sent through subtle but crucial effects and the drums sounding more active and more produced than is typical for a jazz date. “Earl J” is on its face a typical post-bop burner, with Pelt taking a high-flying solo that will please fans of his previous work, but Mednard’s drumming is unusually ferocious, with an almost metallic aggression at times, and his cymbals are like a constant wash of static in the middle of the mix. This band is on fire. (From Tomorrow’s Another Day, out now via HighNote.)


Isaiah Collier & The Chosen Few - "Love" (Feat. Dee Alexander)

It’s hard to believe saxophonist Isaiah Collier is only in his twenties. He’s got a gravitas and the kind of questing spirit one normally only encounters in an artist who’s reached their forties or beyond. His quartet the Chosen Few are back with their first album in three years, one of four records Collier will be releasing in 2024. They’re joined by multiple guests, including Chicago sax legend Ari Brown and a large ensemble Collier has dubbed the Celestials, featuring three string players and five additional horns.

On the album opener, “Love,” vocalist Dee Alexander sings lyrics written by Collier that strike the same aspirational-unto-victorious tone as the music, which is a swirl of wailing sax, ecstatic piano and drums that are like a never-ending crescendo. The Almighty is a major artistic statement from an artist moving rapidly from strength to strength, and “Love” is the perfect kickoff to the journey, standing on its own but inviting you to take the whole ride. (From The Almighty, out now via Division 81.)


Dave Douglas - "Blood Count"

At the beginning of the year, I mentioned that saxophonist James Brandon Lewis was going to be in this column a lot. Well, he’s back for the fourth month in a row, this time as a guest of trumpeter Dave Douglas. The rest of the band on Gifts consists of guitarist Rafiq Bhatia and drummer Ian Chang, both of post-rock trio Son Lux, and the music they’re playing — six Douglas originals, and four pieces by Billy Strayhorn — has a curious feel halfway between jazz and psychedelia. Bhatia’s guitar is like a mirage on the horizon, Chang’s beats are minimal but evocative, and Douglas and Lewis harmonize like Albert and Donald Ayler, but more in the way their individual lines waver and slip, coming into conjunction then sliding apart again, than through projecting any gospelized free jazz aggression. On Douglas’s “Seven Years Ago,” they’re almost talking past each other, but congenially. (From Gifts, out now via Greenleaf Music.)


Matthew Shipp Trio - "The Function"

Matthew Shipp’s catalog is vast, and shockingly broad. He’s best known for his work in traditional units — solo, trio, a quartet with a single horn — but he’s made records that used electronics and the recording studio as compositional tools. He’s collaborated with Antipop Consortium and DJ Spooky. He’s been a part of a one-off freely improvising jazz-rock unit where he played Farfisa organ, with Jason Pierce of Spiritualized on guitar. He’s made drumless chamber jazz records, and many, many duo records with saxophonist Ivo Perelman. Last month was the 20th anniversary of High Water, an album he made with El-P. (Yes, that El-P. I interviewed them both, together, when it came out.)

A lot of his albums in recent years have had titles directly referencing his musical practice: The Art Of The Improviser, The Conduct Of Jazz, Piano Sutras, The Piano Equation, The Intrinsic Nature Of Shipp. His latest release is called New Concepts In Piano Trio Jazz, and that might read as hubris — how can someone come up with a new concept for the piano trio, a form that’s been around for almost 80 years?

(The first recordings with the now-traditional piano-bass-drums instrumentation that I know of were made by Erroll Garner, in December 1944, but the format really took off by 1947, when Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, and Teddy Wilson all made trio records.)

On this new CD, though, Shipp and his longtime bandmates, bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker, really have come up with new approaches to their music. Their previous records have been collections of discrete tunes, but this one plays out like a suite even though the tracks all have their own titles. And the music never swings or does much that you might expect from even a “free” jazz trio. Instead, it has a relentless forward momentum with the intensity and repetitiveness of Steve Reich at some points, and the simmering intensity of Morton Feldman at others. Nobody’s showboating; everyone is locked in, and nobody’s the lead voice. Everyone is working together, all the time. At the beginning of “The Function,” the album’s third track, Bisio lays down an absolutely massive walking line, and Shipp comes in behind him, dropping post-stride lines that are halfway between Monk and Ahmad Jamal, with Baker delivering martial barrages on the snare. It’s jazz, but jazz of a uniquely pugnacious and forceful type that acknowledges tradition without any loyalty or subservience. (From New Concepts In Piano Trio Jazz, out now via ESP-Disk’.)

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