Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Tampa Bay Music & Shows

Interview: Kenny G comes to Clearwater, the perfect sax solo always on his mind

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Thinking of picking up the saxophone? Great! Wonderful! Kenny G 100 percent supports your decision!

Just don't ask him for lessons.

"I've never done that," the uber-smooth saxman said in a recent interview, calling from traffic in L.A. "It's not like I haven't had where they've asked me to come in and do a master class. But in terms of a real teaching thing? No. I'm still a student."

A student? Kenny G? Even with some 75 million records sold worldwide?

Jazz is like that. Even smooth jazz, the dreamy, soft-focus variety for which Kenneth Bruce Gorelick is best known (and, in some circles, reviled). Kenny G, who performs Friday at Coachman Park in Clearwater, still practices three hours a day, running his scales and perfecting his technique, just so he can stay as sharp at 60 as he was at 17, when he first joined Barry White's Love Unlimited Orchestra.

"I'm always trying to learn how to play my scales better and jazz licks faster, higher, cleaner, stronger, longer, everything," he said. "It's like (being) an athlete. You may be very great at what you do, but you've still got to keep training so you can maintain. I suppose if I only practiced about a half hour a day, I'd probably maintain where I am. But I'm trying to get better and better. There's no end to how good you can be."

The saxophone, an instrument once mostly relegated to the E Street Band and odd one-offs like Baker Street and Careless Whisper, has enjoyed a resurgence in pop music in the last decade. Hits like Fifth Harmony's Worth It, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis's Thrift Shop and Iggy Azalea and Ariana Grande's Problem are built around infectious sax samples. Songs like Lady Gaga's The Edge of Glory and M83's Midnight City soar through the roof when their spiraling solos kick in. Even Kenny himself has gotten in on the craze, joining Foster the People for a 2011 performance on Saturday Night Live.

But a sax solo alone does not a hit make. It takes the right sax solo, the perfect sax solo, to make your song fly like a California condor. That, Kenny says, is where his expertise comes in.

Anytime he's asked to duet with another superstar — and he's worked with them all, from Aretha to Barbra to Sinatra— he prefers to hole up alone with the track, feeling out and whittling away just the right solo for the song. If it doesn't sound absolutely perfect, it doesn't get out into the world.

"If they have changes, they can tell me, and I'll consider," he said. "But what I don't really tell them — but I can tell you — is that by the time I've sent them the solo, I've already gone through anything and everything. When I tell you this is the definitive solo, you've got to just trust me that I know what I'm talking about. If there's a couple of minor things, yeah. But if it's a major thing, I might just say, 'Hey, look, bro, just get someone else. If you don't like what I did, that's fine; you don't have to like it. But that's the best you're going to get from me. And I feel like it's the best solo that there can be.' "

Here's another example of his penchant for perfectionism: Kenny plays soprano, alto and tenor saxophone. He doesn't play baritone sax. Doesn't own one. Doesn't want one. Has no plans ever to learn.

"If I had a bari sax, it would mean that I would now have to add another hour of practicing to my schedule every day," he said. "And then maybe in 10 years, you would then, maybe, hear me play the bari saxophone in public."

This is not to say Kenny G is above the occasional laugh at his own expense. He's been offered, and is considering, an appearance in the sequel to the 2016 comedy Bad Moms. And he had a brief cameo in Netflix's Michael Bolton's Big, Sexy Valentine's Day Special, which featured a sketch pitting onetime frienemies Bolton and Kenny G (played by Andy Samberg) in a Dueling Banjos face-off for supreme soft-rock dominance.

"If it's truly funny, then I don't care how bad I look, because funny is funny," he said. "The Michael Bolton thing was pretty funny. I just wish they would have used me more."

They did use his music. And in true Kenny G fashion, he took an obsessive commitment to that task, too, spending days studying Samberg's performance so he could play clean, perfect notes that matched the movement of his fingers.

"I like it when somebody takes something seriously, no matter what it is," he said. "Every performance I do, every solo, every note, I'm super serious about how much I want to make sure I prepare myself to do my absolute best. Then, whatever happens, happens. You can't go back in time. But you can certainly prepare."

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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