G-RATED

KENNY'S SAX SELLS. THE CRITICS AREN'T BUYING.

Life could be worse for Kenny G. The saxophonist's latest release, a double live disc, hasn't left the Billboard Top Contemporary Jazz Albums chart for the past forty weeks. He's also been been fortunate enough to further his career by recording with Whitney Houston, Smokey Robinson, Aretha Franklin and, most recently, Michael Bolton, to name but a few. His concerts consistently draw hoards of truly adoring fans, evident from the audience shots in his live home video. Everyone loves Kenny G.

Well, maybe not everyone. The Seattle-bred Kenny Gorelick has consistently found disfavor with the critics, who almost universally dismiss him as colorless and simplistic. The absence of an edge in the G-man's playing is no minor issue, considering that his music does lean toward rhythm and blues. Noted for his one-dimensional writing, he's often classified as more anesthetic than musical. Kenny's albums are written off as a continual rehashing of the same pretty chords and easy funk licks, all as predictable as wallpaper.

The saxophonist has used several jazz magazine interviews to respond with charges of his own, claiming the critics are incapable of settling for the intentions of his contemporary jazz. It appears to him that they refuse to condone music that primarily strives for a beautiful tone or danceable grooves.

His fans, on the other hand, just want to feel good. They have no quarrel with the style of Kenny G, content with his musical offerings that consistently alternate between sentimental ballads and slightly funk-oriented tunes. His home concert videocassette ping-pongs between the saxophonist's infatuation with each, slipping into the sugary "Silhouette" or "Esther," only to follow up with the shake-your-stuff "Midnight Motion" or "Against Doctor's Orders." The ballads highlight his pure, wide-vibrato sound and a mood that's all romance and no sexuality; his dance cuts portray a limited knack for rhythm and blues, despite his desire to instill a party atmosphere.

And Kenny G is jazz's ultimate applause monger. His hunger to elicit audience response supercedes all other motivations. He parades decidedly unmusical demonstrations of his ability--circular breathing, holding a single note indefinitely, playing endless cascades without pause--for no other reason than because he can.

Then there are his ballads, which without fail drown in overt sentimentality. They may be delicate, but they're never subtle. Kenny G appears to always pass over the chance for a misty eye if he thinks one of his melodies can coax a sob.

On the up-tempo side, the saxophonist's search for funkiness consistently falls short. Certainly no fires are fueled by any musical interaction with his band. Bassist Vail Johnson says during an interview in the home video that he doesn't feel the saxophonist is aware of what the band is playing behind him. Instead, the isolated Kenny G is prone to riding a two-bar groove and beating it to death before a song's conclusion.

Not that we should expect anything different from the saxophonist. Kenny G once told Downbeat magazine, "I want to stress the fact that I don't live and breathe music. In fact, I don't even listen to music, I never really have. The only time I do is when I'm recording."

WHAT, THEN, IS the antidote for his limited G-ness? Try a trip to any well-stocked record store, where it's surprisingly easy to find the opposite of all this caloric sentimentality and skim-milk funk.

Attracted to Kenny G's clear tone and romantic leanings? Sample some Appassionado, the latest from Stan Getz on A&M Records. Getz intertwines endless creativity and thoughtful phrasing over lush arrangements that would sound sticky and sentimental coming from a player of lesser stature. Getz's The Best of Two Worlds on Columbia Records, meanwhile, couples his feel for beautiful, innovative jazz with Brazilian rhythms.

And fans of Kenny G's soprano sax work can find an artist who does justice to the instrument in Paul Winter. His releases on A&M and Living Music Records place his haunting style in gorgeous, but unlikely, settings. In contrast to Kenny G's conservative writing, Winter's adventurous approach leads him to apply a chord progression to the songs of animals or other natural sounds. The results are unparalleled in their balance of graceful, lyrical soprano work with environmental-music possibilities. Check out Common Ground or Canyon, the latter recorded in the depths of the Grand Canyon.

For a taste of what Kenny G is ostensibly trying to get at on his limited swipes at rhythm and blues, pick up recordings by one of his early influences, alto saxophonist Hank Crawford. At one time a member of Ray Charles' band, Crawford continues to produce soulful, hip-shaking funk. His currently available releases, found on the Milestone label, attest to thirty years of R&B power.

In a similar vein, tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine couples gutbucket blues with jazz and conveys the successful combination on a series of CTI Records releases: Sugar, Cherry, Salt Song, and Don't Mess With Mr. T. His growling, honking sax work is the real thing, but remains accessible to ears unaccustomed to undiluted jazz.

None of these artists are experiencing anything near the phenomenal success of Kenny G, yet all far surpass him in the aspects that have made him so popular. It's this oversight of quality artists that most annoys the saxophonist's critics. Fans have nearly no way of knowing what else is available. Jazz and adult- contemporary radio stations seldom spin a Getz or a Crawford; they're too busy playing Kenny G. Yeah, life could be worse for the lightweight saxophonist. But with a little experimentation, listening to music could be a lot more enjoyable for his fans.

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