“Listening to Kenny G” is an ironic masterpiece

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Unlike Revenge, irony is best served hot, and the authentic warmth of director Penny Lane’s documentary “Listening to Kenny G” (streaming on HBO Max) makes its ironies all the more revealing. In the guise of the banal fan-service genre of pop musician portrayal, Lane delivers something grand and devious: a cinematic work of music criticism, a far-reaching speculation in the philosophy of taste and the sociology of aesthetics. The ironies of his film begin with the title, as many viewers of the film, like many of his music interview subjects, prefer not to listen to Kenny G’s music at all – and their dislike is the driving force behind the film. movie. Lane’s skillful and gentle portrayal is dedicated to the profound proposition that such dislike can be explained, if not justified, by the very portrait of the emerging artist. “Listening to Kenny G” subtly and surely teases the powerful and overarching idea of ​​the inseparability of artist and art, the notion of art as the embodiment of the artist’s personality – for better or for the better. the worst.

As Lane notes in the film, the saxophonist and songwriter known as Kenny G is the best-selling instrumental artist of all time. He identifies with a single genre of music, smooth jazz; moreover, this term was coined expressly to describe his music. (The story is in the movie.) By the mid-eighties, Kenny G’s music gained popularity almost instantly and quickly became a mainstay of shopping malls, waiting rooms, and dentists’ offices, as well. as radio stations; whether or not one wanted to listen to his recordings, it was apparently impossible not to hear them. In “Listening to Kenny G,” Lane tells the story of her rise from obscurity to glory to ubiquity, and she does so with a virtual symphony of voices. She interviews music writers and academics (both detractors and advocates of Kenny G’s music) and members of his beloved audience.

But, above all, Lane listens to Kenny G himself, in person, at length, and his sharp, grainy discussion of the sound of his music and his thoughts and activities during its creation is the heart of the film. He’s an enthusiastic and generous interview subject and host to the filmmaker and her team, in his home and studio, as he talks, talks and talks – for reasons that fascinatingly relate to his music – and it turns the movie into a feast of quotes and a treasure chest of moments. Listening intently to Kenny G, Lane delivers, in a playful and amiable manner, a fierce denunciation, in which she herself does not utter a negative word, as it does most of the unintentional and unconscious damnation.

Kenneth Gorelick, born in Seattle in 1956, grew up there, in a middle-class Jewish family, and in high school was recognized as a saxophone virtuoso. His school group had resident composer James Gardiner who, in an interview with Lane, describes young Kenny as an extraordinary sight reader. Chosen to deliver a brief solo at a 1974 concert at the Seattle Center Opera House with Gardiner’s professional ensemble, Kenny – instead of improvising a brief cadence, as Gardiner intended – held a single note during ten minutes, with a technique known as circular breathing (actually breathing through your nose while blowing the saxophone) and received a standing ovation. According to Gardiner, “It was when little Kenny Gorelick became the G-Man.”

After college, Gorelick joined the Jeff Lorber Fusion, a Portland-based band who recorded for Arista Records. He was noticed by the label’s founder and CEO, Clive Davis, who finally gave him a solo contract. (That’s when he took on the stage name Kenny G.) But, to get around pop radio’s resistance to instrumentals, Davis paired Kenny G with vocalists, much to the saxophonist’s dismay. In 1986, Kenny G was hired on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” to play his R .- & – B-style single. “What Does It Take (to Win Your Love)” (a cover of a 1969 record by Junior Walker & the All Stars). In a chutzpah demonstration similar to that of his 1974 solo at the Opera, he instead performed his own composition “Songbird”, a soft and melodic instrumental. In doing so, he angered Carson’s producers, but achieved a record-breaking success (encouraged by Davis pressuring radio stations to broadcast it, as Davis himself tells Lane) and is became a major celebrity with a plethora of prominent TV appearances, followed by a string of albums that sold millions of copies.

Radio host Pat Prescott explains that office workers liked Kenny G’s music as a pleasant, bouncy, and harmless vibe. With his solo saxophone it sounded like jazz, but, as radio director Allen Kepler says, people who didn’t like jazz nonetheless liked Kenny G’s recordings, and, in a discussion group where his records were played, one woman, trying to describe his style, called it “smooth jazz”, and the term caught on (and was quickly adopted by a Chicago station, the first of many to use it); as Kenny G himself says, “They decided to call it ‘smooth jazz’ because if they called it jazz it would put people off.” Yet Kenny G himself has turned away from jazz, as he admits in a 1993 clip from an interview with Charlie Rose that Lane includes. When asked if he was influenced by the great jazz saxophonists, Kenny G replied about his music: “It’s real jazz sound, but it’s technique. The John Coltrane and the Charlie Parker, I mean, their technique was phenomenal. . . . but that music was never sincere to me, so when I went out and played it wasn’t something I wanted to emulate. What this says about Kenny G’s musical heart is quite overwhelming; this also shows the primordial, even counterproductive, importance for him of the technique.

Back, for Lane’s camera, in his high school in Seattle, Kenny G is invited by the principal to sign the Wall of Fame, and he writes, “Go for what you love and work out, work out, Train yourself”. Even now, he practices three hours a day; when he went to college, he avoided taking music theory, preferring to use the time to practice. To this day, he does not know harmony but claims to have a “sixth sense of melody” and employs an assistant to suggest chords to him to accompany his melodies until he finds one he likes. What emerges from such remarks throughout the film is not a formal issue with his focus on melody or technique, but rather a suggestion that he is incurable about the music itself. Lane includes a clip of a young Kenny G saying he barely listens to music, follows the news or knows “what’s going on”. Besides, Lane asks him what he likes in music, and his cheerful answer comes like a kind of slap in the face to people, whether they are musicians or just listeners, who are passionate about it: “I don’t know if I love music so much. . . . I guess for me when I listen to music I think about musicians and just think about what it takes to make that music and how much they had to practice.

In chatting with Lane, Kenny G blithely displays an absurd, almost comical contempt for art – because he loves “old jazz standards”, he resolves to make an album for which he will compose “new standards”; Deciding he wants to play classical music, he says, “Like the new standards, I’m going to have to write new classical music.” Instead of playing with the greatest musicians of the time, he made a duet with a music video of the late Louis Armstrong on “What a Wonderful World” and revealed, in the film, his plan to do a similar “virtual duo” with the late saxophonist Stan Getz, but with a different twist: instead of just playing with a Getz recording, he’ll ask the sound engineer to “adjust” Getz’s playing to suit his own song. In the studio, Kenny G flaunts his own relentless tweaks to his own playing; he plays his soprano saxophone, then asks the sound engineer to show how it will sound on the record, after several “reverbs” are added to it – and that is, according to the saxophonist, “what he is doing. really looks like.” And, he adds, “When I give my approval, I sit down and I’m like, ‘This is fucking beautiful.’ I just said it.

Kenny G pursues something like perfection both in and out of music, and brags about it to Lane. He plays golf, aviation, cooking, investing, laundry and even parenting with the same dedication and the same great work, the same sense of satisfaction in feeling “really good” to them. He has two sons and says that when they were young he asked himself, “How am I going to become the best father the world has ever seen?” I will start to study it. He is happy with the way they “turned out” and adds: “Both of them grew up watching their dad, who is already super famous, every day, training, training.” He has a relentless drive to be “the best” at whatever he does; he even eagerly expresses to Lane his desire to be “the best interview” she’s ever had, and adds that he would happily sit twelve hours straight with her if that was the right thing to do.


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