An interview with Kenny Garrett

Beyond the Wall is saxophonist's most ambitious recording to date

Listen to the interview (21:45)

Omaha, Nebraska – Kenny Garrett is one of the most accomplished musicians of his generation. Whether in the studio or on the bandstand, Garrett becomes a channel for inspired musical statements.

In perhaps his most far reaching effort yet, Garrett has released Beyond the Wall, on Nonesuch records. Garrett recorded Beyond the Wall following his first, long-anticipated trip to mainland China last year.

The deeply spiritual recording reflects the saxophonist/composer's long-time fascination with the culture, music and spirituality of China.

Attempting to learn as much of the language and culture of China during his stay,
the saxophonist went unaided into direct contact with natives who urged him on in his serious effort to approach China.

"The people of China were so mysterious to me because they are so isolated," Garrett says. "I've read books on Chinese philosophy and intuitively felt that there is something in the culture for me. There is simplicity to Confucianism that I they function by nature and how something as simple as raking the leaves can put you in tune with the universe." Naturally, Garrett's interest also turned to music. "Preparing this CD," he continues, "I was initially trying to join Africa and China. I was comparing books on their approach to health and saw many similarities. I wondered if I could connect the spiritual aspects of Africa and China in music. I'd written the song 'Beyond the Wall' a few years before. I always dreamt of going to mainland China. So I wrote a song about the wall to inspire me to get writing out my plan."

Musicians on the new disc include Tenor Saxophone Legend Pharaoh Sanders, in addition to pianist Mulgrew Miller, bassist Robert Hurst, drummer Brian Blade, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, percussionist Ruggerio Boccato, and the leader Kenny Garrett on alto saxophone among others.

Throughout his career, multiple Grammy-nominee Kenny Garrett has explored a vast spectrum of music. His muscular yet melodic playing can be heard on recordings by jazz legends Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Haynes, and Miles Davis, rock royalty Sting, Peter Gabriel and Bruce Springsteen, and progressive rap pioneer GURU.
Born in Detroit, he was introduced to the saxophone early by his father, who played tenor. Growing up in Detroit at the time offered Garrett ample opportunity to explore soul, gospel, even classical firsthand, in addition to jazz. In 1978, Garrett was offered a slot in the Duke Ellington Orchestra (then under the direction of Duke's son, Mercer Ellington), effectively putting college on the back burner for the young reedman. Three years later, Kenny moved to New York and played with The Mel Lewis Orchestra (absorbing the charts of Thad Jones) and the Dannie Richmond Quintet (playing the music of Charles Mingus).

He released his first album as a leader, Introducing Kenny Garrett, in 1984. During the 1980s he also recorded with Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw. Miles Davis hired Garrett in 1986 and the ensuing five-year/four-album association left an indelible imprint on both Garrett's life and career. Of the many pearls he gleaned, the saxophonist says, "Miles' genius was getting the best out of musicians but not controlling them - letting them be free, but also getting what he wanted from them."

After two albums for Atlantic Records - Prisoner of Love and African Exchange Student - Kenny signed to Warner Bros. where he began an impressive string of acclaimed and audience-challenging recordings: Black Hope (1992), Trilogy (1995), Pursuance: The Music of John Coltrane (1996), Songbook (1997), Simply Said (1999), Happy People (2002) and Standard of Language (2003). This shining period brought 4-star album reviews and well over 100 credits as a sought-after sideman.

Kenny Garrett performed at the Iowa City Jazz Festival in 2005 where he gave an extended set.
Remarkable in its diversity, the saxophonist ranged from free jazz in the spirit of late Coltrane to straight ahead to music informed by Japanese and Korean themes. The evening came to an energetic climax with a hip hop meets jazz closer which got the audience on their feet. Throughout, Garrett was relentlessly creative, fully present in the moment, and engaging the obviously appreciative audience.

Last Call host Chris Cooke attended that performance and recently spoke with the saxophonist about his new recording. Click on the link at the top of this page to listen to that interview.