Blue notes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 April, 2012, 12:00am


Six years have passed since saxophonist Kenny Garrett's last studio album as a leader, 2006's Grammy-nominated Beyond The Wall, but he has hardly been idle since then.

In addition to sideman gigs, Garrett has changed record labels, from Nonesuch to Mack Avenue, and in 2008 released a live album, Sketches of MD, recorded at New York's Iridium Jazz Club. He also toured in the Five Peace Band alongside fellow Miles Davis alumni Chick Corea and John McLaughlin - with whom he appeared at the Hong Kong Arts Festival in 2009 - and was a member of the Freedom Band with Corea, Christian McBride and Roy Haynes.

Garrett also found time to compose all the tunes on Seeds From The Underground, a new album paying tribute to some of his formative influences. 'All of these songs are dedicated to someone,' he says, 'and the 'seeds' have been planted, directly or indirectly, by people who have been instrumental in my development.'

Some of the influences are specifically musical, others not. The opening track Boogety Boogety, on which percussionist Rudy Bird imitates the sound of a galloping horse, is dedicated to his father and inspired by the memory of watching wild west movies with him. Wiggins is named after a high school band director who encouraged him as a young player, and Detroit is intended to be a musical evocation of his hometown, but also a tribute to Motor City trumpeter Marcus Belgrave.

There are tips of the hat to fellow saxophonist Jackie McLean in J Mac, drummer Haynes in Haynes Here, pianist Keith Jarrett in Ballad Jarrett, and three jazz giants in a single tune with Du-Wo-Mo which is dedicated to Duke Ellington, Woody Shaw and Thelonious Monk.

One reason Garrett, whose music is often complex and demanding, is generally considered accessible is that he has a gift for composing - or sometimes just borrowing - memorable riffs and melodies, which he usually plays long enough to get them planted in the listener's head before the improvisation begins.

So it is here - but he has introduced some complications to keep things interesting, influenced by the experience of working with McLaughlin in the Five Peace Band. 'In my experience with John, we played some songs in odd meters, so I thought, 'this is a different way of writing songs'. So there is some of that approach here,' Garrett says.

The leader's world music leanings are apparent in the African- influenced Welcome Earth Song and in Laviso, I Bon? which closes the album, and was inspired by a musician friend in Guadeloupe. They are also reflected in the wordless vocals on Haynes Here and Detroit, and in the African chanting on Welcome Earth Song. Some listeners perhaps will welcome that element, but I find the voices an irritating distraction from a fine small jazz group, comprising besides Garrett and Bird, pianist Benito Gonzalez, bassist Nat Reeves, and drummer Ronald Bruner.

Another annoying production decision was to run a recording of real or simulated vinyl record surface noise through Detroit, presumably to emphasise that the tune is supposed to evoke the city of a bygone era. I have my own occasional moments of vinyl nostalgia, but one of the advantages of the digital age is that surface noise is no longer a price we have to pay for repeatedly playing recordings. On the whole that's the way I prefer to keep things.

That is a relatively minor quibble though. All things considered, Seeds From The Underground is a worthy addition to a generally strong catalogue of solo releases from a major jazz artist, happy to acknowledge his musical debts even though he long ago achieved his own authoritative voice.

'Since my last recording I've had a lot of different experiences,' Garrett observes. 'What I liked about putting this album together was the idea that my writing had grown and had become a little different, partially the result of Seeds From The Underground.'

Take Three

Three outstanding albums featuring Kenny Garrett.

Trilogy (Warner Brothers, 1995): the solo set which established Garrett as an artist with something substantial of his own to say. A confidently handled version of John Coltrane's Giant Steps is one of the standards on which he leaves his mark, and it points the way forward to the full-blown tribute album he would record the following year.

Sketches of MD: Live at the Iridium Jazz Club (Mack Avenue, 2008): a live set which reflects both Garrett's scope as an improvising soloist and his soul-jazz skills as a riffing crowd pleaser. Some of the exuberance for which his concert appearances are renowned transfers successfully to disc, and the contributions of saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, who also appeared on Beyond The Wall, are a welcome bonus.

Five Peace Band (Concord, 2009): a jazz supergroup which added up to more than the sum of its parts captured live. As if McLaughlin, Corea, McBride and Vinnie Colaiuta were not enough talent to assemble on one stage, Herbie Hancock joins in for In a Silent Way/It's About That Time, thus reconvening three-fifths of the musicians still living who played on the original Miles Davis

In a Silent Way Sessions. Garrett is in daunting company, but is not outclassed.