Kenny Garrett’s place in jazz history was secured long ago as the last in the line of one of the most prestigious clubs in all of jazz: saxophone foils for Miles Davis. Following in the footsteps of Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, George Coleman, Wayne Shorter, Gary Bartz and Dave Liebman, Garrett like all those others developed a distinctive style for his horn, and like most of them, went on to make his own mark on the music when he became a leader. Prior stints with Freddie Hubbard, The Duke Ellington Orchestra (under Mercer Ellington’s leadership) and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers paved the way for his stint with Miles and his career afterwards.
Owner of a huge, stinging but passionate tone coming from either an alto or soprano saxophone, Garrett’s sax is one of a handful I can recognize instantaneously; that’s how much he stands apart. Even in a completely different setting, as within the context of the fusion supergroup Five Peace Band, there’s no mistaking that sound. So goes his music. One of a diminishing number of true modalists, Garrett’s fealty to the principles of Coltrane’s 60s jazz was evident on early efforts like African Exchange Student and distilled to his own personal imprint of the form by the time of the magnificent Songbook, an approach that stresses a rich melody over overt complexity. Few have blended the joyful sound of traditional African music with the surprising turns of modern jazz, regularly bringing out the best elements of both.
Garrett doesn’t produce records at the rate that he did in the 90s, and the one coming out next week, Seeds From The Underground, is his first studio album—and with all new material—since 2006′s Beyond The Wall. For Seeds, Garrett is paying tribute to his heroes, ranging from Jackie McLean (“J Mac”), to Roy Haynes (“Haynes Here”) to Keith Jarrett (“Ballad Jarrett”) to Ellington, Woody Shaw and Thelonious Monk all at once (“Do-Wo-Mo”). In truth, his music always pays tribute to his influences, so this is really a mainline Kenny Garrett album. And that’s nothing to complain about.
The sequence even begins with a signature type KG tune, “Boogety Boogety,” with its bouncy melody, tribal percussion and a cyclical bass line. Everyone is performing like a well-oiled machine; this is Garrett’s working quartet, after all. Joining the leader is his longtime bassist Nat Reeves, with Ronald Bruner on drums and Benito Gonzalez on piano. Assisting in accentuating the African elements of Garrett’s song where needed are Rudy Bird on percussion and Nedelka Prescod on wordless or chorus vocals (another Garrett trademark).
Aside from the lead-off track, other notable performances come from the heated hard bop “J Mac,” the crisp, swinging “Du-Wo-Mo’ which does indeed contain elements of all three namesakes, and the celebratory “Welcome Earth Song,” where Garrett also does his most extensive soloing.
Two cuts stand out the most: the harmony on “Wiggins” (Youtube above) is intricately woven into the urgent, odd metered rhythm, and Garrett’s ode to his hometown “Detroit” is one of his best ballads, doleful in a way similar to Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” and accentuated by Prescod harmonizing with the main melodic line. The only blemish on that song is the faux vinyl record scratches, a trick that 25 years into the CD age has become a gimmick.
Kenny Garrett needs no gimmick. As this album makes clear, he might make us wait a little longer for fresh material, but he made it well worth the wait.
Seeds From The Underground, Garrett’s second CD for Mack Avenue Records, goes on sale April 10.