Songs in the key of G
The world's most successful sax player is taking a chance on an album of original material, writes Robin Lynam
You can learn a surprising amount about the way the music industry works from a quick chat with Kenny G. Whether you like his music or not - and his detractors are just as passionate on the subject as his fans - most people would probably assume that one of the most commercially successful instrumental recording artists in history would have a significant say in what music he did and didn't have to record.
Not so, it seems. Despite having sold more than 75 million albums worldwide for Arista, the label to which music mogul Clive Davis signed him in 1982, last year the saxophonist's proposal that he record an album of his original tunes was turned down flat in favour of a collection of covers. He declined to make that record, and with some reluctance negotiated his way out of his recording contract.
'I can't blame the record company because they'd had a lot of success with artists doing cover songs - Barry Manilow and Rod Stewart - and they just felt that I fell into the same category and should keep doing songs that had been previously recorded,' he says over the phone from Los Angeles.
'I had already done an album like that, and previously did a duets album of older material, and previous to that a Christmas album, so I said 'It's time for my original music' and they didn't want me to do it, so I had to leave.'
His music - smooth jazz, easy listening, muzak, pop, call it what you will - might make him an unlikely rebel figure, but Kenny G - aka 'The G-Man' and born Kenneth Gorelick in Seattle, Washington, in 1956 - has never liked being told what to do.
He started as a professional musician with Barry White's Love Unlimited Orchestra before joining The Jeff Lorber Fusion and then embarking on a solo career. Clive Davis was smitten with his sound on his main instrument, the soprano sax, when he heard him play Abba's Dancing Queen.
Gorelick had two platinum albums to his credit when a moment of obstinacy on the Johnny Carson show in 1987 gave him his career-defining moment. He had been asked to perform a duet with a vocalist, but on the night refused to co-operate and instead launched into the lead track of his current album, Duotones, a tune called Songbird.
The instrumental became an enormous hit - it's the one that vies with Richard Clayderman's Ballade Pour Adeline as the most ubiquitous melody to be heard in Asia's lifts and shopping malls.
Gorelick comes across as a likeable and easygoing man, and seems to take the numerous jokes about his music in his stride. He can afford to, but would like his work to be taken more seriously.
A quip in the studio during the recording of the new Latin album, Rhythm & Romance, was 'I'm taking my music out of the elevator and south of the border'. It's his first album of mostly original music since 2002, and clearly means a lot to him.
'I wanted this album to be different but still me. I've dabbled in Latin music over the years, and on occasion on a few of my CDs I've had a song that's Latinish. I've always liked the way that my saxophone combined with Latin rhythms, and I thought maybe we could do a whole album like this - not all the slow and beautiful ballad-type of Latin music, but some up-tempo as well. That's why I titled the record Rhythm & Romance, because there's a lot of rhythm on this record, and it's a departure for me,' he says.
Most of the album was composed by Gorelick and his long-time associate producer and songwriter Walter Afanasieff.
There are only two standards - Besame Mucho and Sabor A Mi. Much of the album will appeal to those who enjoy the love-it-or-hate-it sound of Gorelick's soprano saxophone on slow ballads, but he hits a different groove with Salsa Kenny and Sax-O-Loco.
Musicians involved in the sessions include veteran Brazilian jazz percussionist Paulinho Da Costa and former Weather Report drummer Alex Acuna, along with a number of other highly experienced Latin musicians.
'They're world-famous musicians and they really took the songs that we wrote and gave them a new life. It was wonderful to be in the studio playing live with these great players,' Gorelick recalls.
Recreating the sound live without the musicians who play on the album, as he will be on an Asian tour which winds up in Hong Kong on May 9, will not be a problem, he says. 'My guys are amazing musicians and I've had the same band for many years. I just felt that this record had to be recorded with real Latin players who've grown up with this music, but now that we've done it, all my guys have learned the music and we play it as good as the record or even better,' he says.
Reviews of the album and of US shows featuring the material, predictably, have been mixed, but even if Gorelick's record sales - along with everybody else's - are in decline, it seems likely that it will move a profitable number of units through his new recording and distribution deal with Concord Records and Starbucks.
This time he has made sure that he has more clout in the company than he discovered he did at Arista. Twenty years ago, and already with a lot more money in the bank than other highly successful but also critically respected jazz artists - such as Pat Metheny, who has been one of his most unforgiving critics - Gorelick was one of the original investors in Starbucks.
'It was risky, but obviously it turned out to be a good investment. More importantly I established a very wonderful relationship with [Starbucks chairman and CEO] Howard Schultz, and when I went to him and said 'Look I'm going to do this record of original material and it's going to be Latin music' he put me in touch with Starbucks Entertainment. They were very, very enthusiastic about the record and that's why we joined forces,' the saxophonist says.
Another recording project he hopes to undertake is a CD specially for the Chinese market. He has a loyal following in Hong Kong and on the mainland, and has recorded with both Andy Lau Tak-wah and Wang Lee-hom. He has also recorded one of Wang's compositions as a bonus track for the Chinese market pressing of Rhythm & Romance.
'I'm lucky that my music connects with the Chinese people. It just does, and when I record Chinese traditional songs I find them to be beautiful. There are a few traditional Chinese melodies that I've recorded over the years, and we'll perform those at our concerts in China, and we'll play them in Hong Kong.'
Like most international artists with a Chinese following, the Kenny G name probably sells more pirate CDs on the mainland than official pressings, but for an American with a vested interest in protecting his copyrights he is refreshingly realistic on the subject.
'How can you blame a person that doesn't have very much money if they have the opportunity to buy something for US$1 for which they otherwise have to spend US$15? I don't blame the people. It's supply and demand. It's basically what capitalism does. What I would like to do sometime is a Chinese traditional album of my interpretations. Maybe I'll compose a few original songs, which would be my interpretation of how a Chinese traditional melody would be, and then price the CD [reasonably]. Maybe we can sell it for US$2. It's not like we have to make a bunch of money on it, and then have everybody buy a legitimate CD instead of the pirate ones. I think there's a way to do that, so I'm going to work on that and hopefully in a couple of years we can make it happen,' he says.
He already has another musical project on the mainland - manufacturing saxophones.
He also runs a charitable fund which buys musical instruments and supplements arts funding for schools, and has long wanted to see better made but affordable instruments available for music students. The instruments are modelled on the antique soprano sax which he has played since his schooldays, but with modern mechanical parts.
'The saxophones are made in China and my partner, who is making the saxophones with me, has moved to China. He lives right near the factory, making sure everything is perfect. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that I think that the saxophones that I'm making in China are the best in the world. I think I've come up with a very, very beautiful instrument that I'm pricing at a level students can afford so they don't have to not have a great instrument because of price,' he says.
Loved and vilified in equal measure in different quarters, Gorelick is philosophical about his lot in life and music.
'I just play from my heart whatever I feel like I should do, and it seems to always work out. I think that's kind of the way of the world. Most of the time when people follow their heart, and do what they really believe, things seem to work out.'
Kenny G will appear at the AsiaWorld-Arena on May 9
Rhythm & Romance is out now