Kenny G: Behind the Beats
Updated: May 4
Each week we'll take you 'Behind the Beats' to learn more about the artists that play on our airwaves. This week: Kenny G.
With a new album and a documentary, Kenny G was keeping busy in 2021. We interviewed him about his year in our annual BEATS magazine. Check out the article below but keep scrolling for the extended version of our interview.
Read the rest of the BEATS magazine here.
Kenny, thank you so much for taking some time for us! You continue to be one of the busiest artists on the planet! This month, you have released your first album in several years, a documentary and are touring! How do you find the energy and enthusiasm after all these years?
Finding the energy is never a problem for me, I am just wired to have an abundance of motivation and discipline… it’s just the kind of person I am. So, the thing for me, Allen, is that I, as you know, love learning and just being a student in general. And when you play the saxophone, you are a student, for ever and ever because you’re trying to master something that can’t be mastered. Every day I wake up motivated to practice and discover more things about the saxophone and work on the ideas that I already know how to play and try to make them better… so I am just always motivated to do what I do better and better. So, doing all of the things right now that are happening to me is just exciting! I had a great time being part of the documentary… making a new album – that’s hard work. And, as you know it takes me a long time to do it and it’s a labor of love for me… and the quest to write better songs and record them better and play better… all those things. That’s what motivates me to keep going and I just don’t see that ever stopping.
The new album is titled “New Standards”. Please tell us about the inspiration behind this amazing new project.
The new album “New Standards” came from my idea, which took me a couple of years to figure out by the way, of wanting to capture the sound and the vibe and the romance… the sophistication of these beautiful jazz ballads played in the 50’s and 60’s by the great jazz masters. I wanted to capture the essence of those ballads, but yet I wanted to do it with my own original compositions that sounded similar to those jazz ballads, but obviously they’d be different songs, new songs. Play them my way, play them with my melodies, but could that work? Will it fit? That was the question for me and the answer is yes. I just love the way it turned out. But that was really it. It’s my way of trying to pay homage to those great jazz ballads, but yet upgrade them in the sense that they’re different, not better, and that they’re my melodies. They’re my compositions, so adding a more modern sounding element and yet they’re based in more traditional jazz chords and structure. And I think the balance turned out really great.
The first ‘smooth jazz’ radio single is “Legacy” and features Stan Getz! The tune has already been on our weekly TOP 20 and is an instant hit for us. Tell us how this tune came about.
“Legacy” is a song that’s very close to my heart. It’s a quest that I went out to attempt, not knowing if it would even work. Could I somehow find notes that Stan Getz played, because I wanted to do it with Stan Getz, he’s been one of my idols. His nickname is ‘The Sound’ because his sound is so unique and beautiful. Could I get notes from him somewhere that he played? And now with our modern technology we can take notes and change the actual pitch of them, we can change the length of them etc. So, could I get the notes and then formulate those notes into a melody that I write and a song that I compose that I think will be a great, fitting melody for Stan Getz to play and can I do it in a way that I would do it in a duet? Okay, that’s taking on a big, big project. I tried it and it started to come together and little by little I found the notes I wanted, I made them play the melody that I thought would be beautiful and it just came out really great. It’s such an honor for me to say that I’ve done a duet with Stan Getz. Yes, it’s a posthumous duet – you could say it’s a virtual duet, but it’s more posthumous. The big test was playing it for his family. So, I sat down with his widow, Monica, his son Nick and played them this song and they absolutely loved it and gave me their blessings and thumbs up so I’m super proud. And all of the proceeds from the song “Legacy” will go to the Stan Getz estate.
I know that you have always practiced three hours a day and take your craft very seriously. Is major practicing still in your daily regiment?
YES YES and YES. Every day, three hours. I love it. I enjoy it. It’s fun to me. It’s interesting. I delve into little things that I didn’t even know I wanted to learn. I’ll try things and, you know it takes me a while. It takes me a few months to learn certain things that I want to be able to play, and that I will then perform in my concerts. And I am patient. I know that it takes years and years to get great at things. So, yeah it’s really part of my every day and I look forward to it more than I think anything else in my life.
However, you also keep a very humble and good sense of humor about the critics’ commentary. Can you comment on that too?
Well, that is flattering. For me it just goes back to who I am. I’m a saxophone player. I work hard at what I do. I practice hard. I know I have become a very good saxophone player, you might even say I’m a great sax player, but there are a lot of people that could say that, well not a lot…(laughs) but there are some people who can say that as well because they put in the time… and that’s all I think about. If I can answer the questions that I’m about to tell you with ‘yes’ then I know I’m good. And the questions are: Am I working as hard as I can? Yes. Am I putting my heart into it? Yes. Am I sincere? Yes. Am I writing the best songs I can? Yes. Am I trying to be the best that I can be and am I doing it from the right place? And the answer is always yes for all of those things. So, when there’s critical comments, they really don’t mean that much to me because I already know what I’m doing and how I’m doing it. And also I see the reaction of, you know, 99% of the world and I’ve gotten positive feedback from other great jazz musicians… from Miles Davis to Dizzy to George Benson complimenting me on my sax playing, so what do I have to care that a critic would say something about my performance or my saxophone playing or my compositions or my style. Because that’s just one person’s opinion and they’re entitled to their opinion. It just doesn’t have to affect what I think about myself and my actions going forward.
The HBO documentary “Listening To Kenny G” got great reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). How did the documentary come about?
The documentary came about because Bill Simmons, who does these great documentaries, decided to do a set called ‘Music Box” featuring 6 musicians. He reached out to some directors he wanted to work with and one of them was Penny Lane. He asked her to pitch and idea and her idea was me. She thought that my success was something that was worldwide, and yet there was a group that was very angry that I’m successful… a group of people let’s just say. And she wanted to talk about that and thought that would make a very interesting story. She thought that I would be okay with that because she had seen previous interviews that I did where we talked about it. We met. She told me her ideas and they loved the pitch at HBO and so with all of that we decided to go forward. It was just a pleasure to work with her. I think she did a great job on the film. She shows the different sides to the issue, and yet I think she captured a lot of my personality and what goes into what I do… I think a good message from the film is that if you work really hard at something, you’re going to get great at it. If you spend enough time and enough hours. If you do that, you should feel pretty great about what you’re doing and you don’t have to follow the advice or criticisms of other people. You can still stay on your path.
When we go to press, you’ll be right in the middle of your Christmas tour. How has it felt to get back to live performances?
Yes, we’ve been out on our ‘normal’ December run, which is really fun because we really enjoy doing these and we only do them once a year so it’s fun. The hard part is remembering how to play every single note perfectly when you don’t practice the Christmas tunes all the time. But, you know what? We’re professional. We got it! (Laughs) So yeah, it feels great to be back out on the road playing for people. It’s what we do, it’s our thing and gosh I’ve been doing since 1978 or 79. It’s part of who I am. If I don’t go out on the road and play gigs, at least maybe 50 gigs a year, I feel like I’m missing something. And I think I can speak for the guys in my band. We’ve been together for 30, 40 years and we all feel the same way. That’s why we’re still out here doing it. It’s in our blood.
You had a recent hit with “The Weekend” and over the years, you have recorded with several pop music icons. Any highlights you can share?
It was a great song that I did with The Weekend. I have to tip my hat to him, because he’s the one that reached out to me. His song “In Your Eyes” is just right up my alley. It’s got that beat. He even said, it’s kind of like an 80’s song. I’m not gonna say that it was or wasn’t, but it really did fit my style. And it was really very easy for me to play on that song and come up with what I think was a really nice solo; he obviously thought it was too. Then we ended up doing that song many times. He even redid the single with my sax solo on it, which was very flattering. It was really fun and what a great young artist, really good at what he does talented singer with a great work ethic. We’re very similar that way. Very glad that we connected and that we’re now friends, and that’s a wonderful thing.
Any recent collaborations?
I’ve done a duet, you know since I talk to you last, with Kanye… it was great to be part of his record. What a wonderful guy, super nice, very creative and a pleasure to just watch him in action. So that was great. And what else have I done? Let’s see, I played on a heavy metal record the other day, which was pretty cool. And you know, I enjoy playing with other people if the music speaks to me and is something that works. I don’t want to force myself on something, but if it works, I love it! But I don’t want to make it too big of a part of my life. I don’t want to spread myself too thin. I want to keep my music in my own little box, so if you want my music, you have to come to me rather than me just being out there too much.
Anyone on your wish list for future collaborations?
I’ve just been watching the Beatles documentary so, of course now I want to work with Paul McCartney, so yeah that’d be great. Iconic people like Elton John. I’m very lucky, I’ve done some great things with really amazing icons like Barbara Streisand and Frank Sinatra and it’s been an honor to record with artists like that… and Smokey Robinson. So yeah, I’ve already had plenty, but if I had a ‘wish list’ I’d have Elton and Paul McCartney to it. And of course, right now if I could do something with Beyonce that would be great as well.
Plans for 2022 and beyond?
Really just to get back into touring. I have a new album just released, so I won’t be thinking about new music for a bit of time. I don’t know what my next project will sound like at this moment, but it could be a lullaby album. It could be a new Christmas album, maybe with duets this time instead of just me. It could be a classical music album. So, we’ll just have to have to see what happens. But I don’t think I’m gonna start working on that until later in 2022. Mainly it’s going to be about getting on the road, keeping a nice balance in my life of touring and home life. Because, with the pandemic, I got to spend a couple of years at home and that has been more than I’ve ever done in 40 years and I loved every minute of it… not because of the pandemic, but I loved being around my family and having maybe more of a normal social life where I could make plans for the next couple of months instead of not being able to because I’m on the road. So, I liked that and I’m going to try to find a better balance. I’m thinking about touring in blocks of time instead of in pieces throughout the year. Maybe go on three one-month runs a year with about 25 shows in each month. And of course anything is subject to change.
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