Kenny Garrett Honors the Ancestors


“I always wanted the elders to be there, so I can make sure that I was moving in the right direction,” Kenny Garrett said of his relationship with legends of jazz.

(Photo: Hollis King)

Kenny Garrett’s latest album, Sounds From The Ancestors, is a message to all of the legendary artists who helped shape his artistic prowess. In addition to his appreciation for the straightahead jazz heroes of yesteryear and prominent postmodern improvisers on today’s scene, DownBeat’s Alto Saxophonist of the Year is quick to acknowledge those non-jazz musicians who have played a major role in shaping his tastes. In Garrett’s view, it all comes from the same source, however varied.

“My mom listened to Motown, and my father was listening to jazz, so I just heard everything in the house. I never thought about Aretha Franklin as being something separate or Marvin Gaye as being something separate, or John Coltrane being something separate. They were all part of this whole picture,” Garrett said in an October phone conversation with DownBeat. And his connection to this broad confluence of sounds started early in life.

“When you’re introduced to the music, if you’re hanging out with your peers, you’re going to listen to what’s currently going on,” he said. “But as you grow up, you’re hearing your parents’ music, and that’s the root. That’s the ancestors, that’s the root that we’re hearing. I’m listening to B.B. King. I’m listening to James Cleveland. I’m listening to whatever they’re listening to. They’re passing it on to me.”

In addition to being inspired by his parent’s record collection, Garrett had the music he and his peers dug into as teenagers, like “Earth, Wind & Fire, Kool & the Gang and The Ohio Players.” And then there’s Detroit. His upbringing in the burly Midwestern city, and his adjacency to the legendary 1960s and ’70s music scene there, also played a role in shaping him artistically.

“My mom used to take me down to the Fox Theatre to hear the Four Tops or the Temptations or the Supremes because she wanted to expose me to that music. My father was actually a deacon, and he actually lived right across the street from Aretha Franklin’s father’s church [the famed Reverend C.L. Franklin],” Garrett said, noting that the scene in Detroit was not subject to strict genre divisions, not even at the city’s iconic bastion of soul music — Motown Records.

“Stevie Wonder, to me, is a jazz musician,” Garrett said. “He was around jazz musicians who were helping him to understand that music. A lot of those guys who were part of The Funk Brothers [the Motown house band that featured famed musicians like prototypical drummer Benny Benjamin and positively mythic bassist James Jamerson] were jazz musicians. They wanted to take care of their families, so they could just keep playing jazz.” Garrett credits Wonder’s early tutelage from those musicians to the Motown star’s prodigious musicianship.

In a sense, Wonder’s early tutelage mirrors Garrett’s own experience while coming of age and finding his own musical voice in Detroit. “Musicians like [trumpeter] Marcus Belgrave, and then [my teacher, saxophonist] Bill Wiggins, who were from Detroit, really put me in a place to be able to be prepared for that music,” he said. “Bill Wiggins was preparing me to take his place. Marcus Belgrave was exposing me to Freddie Hubbard and The Mel Lewis Orchestra and all those musicians that I encountered and I met later in New York.

“There was one guy by the name of Bobby Barnes, he was [a saxophonist] from Detroit. He gave me a couple of lessons, and I don’t even know if I had to pay for the lesson. But that was the best for me. I learned so much from him. And I caught up with him years later, called him, and I told him how much I appreciated him. And he didn’t even know. His wife said he was in tears.”

With all of these indelible influences in mind, Garrett set out to produce Sounds From The Ancestors. He said the album, “examines the roots of West African music in the framework of jazz, gospel, Motown, hip-hop and all other genres that have descended from jùjú and Yoruban music.”

The intergenerational core of the band on Ancestors includes drummer Ronald Bruner Jr., Rudy Bird on percussion, Corcoran Holt on bass and Vernell Brown Jr. on piano. All of the musicians are remarkably accomplished, but two in particular have deep history with Garrett.

Bruner has played with Stevie Wonder and George Duke, but Garrett disclosed, “I was the first one that brought him out and introduced him, gave him an opportunity to come out and play. So, he’s like one of my students.” Meanwhile, Garrett and Rudy Bird played together many years ago with Miles Davis and the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

Ancestors is not just about the historical roots of the music that shaped Kenny Garrett. The album attempts to express the genre-agnostic spirituality that exudes from his influences. “The concept initially was about trying to get some of the musical sounds that I remembered as a kid growing up — sounds that lift your spirit from people like John Coltrane, A Love Supreme, Aretha Franklin, Amazing Grace, Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On and the spiritual side of the church,” Garrett noted. “When I started to think about them, I realized it was the spirit from my ancestors.”

But that sense of spirituality is also cosmopolitan, according to the saxophonist, and not limited to his early influences. “Even when I endeavor to check out Asian music, if I’m listening to Middle Eastern music, if I’m listening to Turkish music, I’m still trying to find that same string that touches my soul and my heart and uplifts me.”

He wanted Ancestors to exude deep-rooted spirituality, as well.

Garrett said that he’d spoken with Cuban bandleader Chucho Valdés about contributing to the project from its infancy because “the spiritual quality [of Valdés’ music] reminded me of my music, but different: coming from an Afro-Cuban perspective.” Garrett credits Valdés as being a part of this album indirectly because he connected with Afro-Cuban singer Dreiser Durruthy while playing with Chucho’s band. Durruthy’s chant laces the opening track “It’s Time To Come Home” with deeply spiritual seasoning.

An inspired feature from vocalist Dwight Trible on “Sounds From The Ancestors” came about after Garrett caught the singer performing with Kamasi Washington at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. The concert led Garrett to cast Trible (who serves as vocal director for the Horace Tapscott Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, a Black Arts Movement-rooted institution based in Los Angeles) for the role of a preacher on the title track, adding another layer of resolute spirituality, this time articulated in Yoruba.

Another notable track, “Hargrove,” serves as a tribute to the deeply revered trumpeter Roy Hargrove, now in the DownBeat Hall of Fame, who Garrett crossed paths with many times, particularly while playing with Roy Haynes. They recorded together on Haynes’s tribute to Charlie Parker, 2001’s Birds Of A Feather.

“[Roy was] a kindred spirit,” Garrett said. “I know how he played, because we played together. And I know he [thought] about funk music and hip hop, all that, because we were coming from the same place, just different generations.” Garrett was Hargrove’s senior by nearly 10 years .

“I embraced all of it,” the saxophonist continued. “If you check out my track record, I’ve played with hip hop artists, to classical things. I just do it all. But I never separate it.”

The process of composing “Hargrove” was remarkably uncomplicated for Garrett. “I’d written the chord changes first, and I was saying, ‘You know what? I hear this melody in my head that fits this song, and it reminds me of Roy.’” Trumpeter Maurice Brown was brought in “to capture that spirit. His fire. I just wanted to pay my homage to [Roy], because he really influenced a lot of musicians.”

Garrett has a positively magnetic attraction to honoring influencers and predecessors. It’s a quality that’s been baked into his artistry since the beginning of his professional career. Fresh out of high school, one of his first major gigs was working with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, which was then led by the legendary bandleader’s son, Mercer Ellington. The experience was a master class in musicianship for the young alto player.

“That was a great experience, because I got a chance to play with Cootie Williams,” Garrett said. “I got a chance to sit under Harold Minerve, who was a protege of Johnny Hodges, and sit under Norris Turney, who was also a protege. Some of those musicians were still the original musicians who played with Duke, so it was a learning experience. When I first joined the band, all the guys were already in their 50s. And I was a young guy, so I was still a dreamer. I’m still a dreamer … but I was a dreamer.”

Just as those artists learned from the masters, Garrett learned from them.

“I was playing my saxophone,” he said, offering an example of their tutelage. “They said, ‘Well, don’t play those snakes in here.’ I was in the dressing room. So, I would leave out of respect and go where the next available room was. And they said, ‘I can still hear you. Don’t play those snakes in here.’ Well, they were saying, ‘Don’t practice. We already heard all that. We don’t want to hear that.’

“So I’d go to the ballroom. They said, ‘Oh, don’t play those snakes.’ And I kept going further and further away, but I was determined that I wasn’t going to stop. I just wasn’t going to disrespect them.”

Ultimately, the young dreamer understood “that they weren’t in the same place that I was in. But also, I could learn a lot from them, because the lead alto player, Harold Minerve, took me under his wing and showed me about music after they understood that I respected the past. They understood that I was a young guy and had a good foundation. And I went on to play for about three and a half years there.”

His lessons learned certainly didn’t stop there. “I always wanted to be by the altar,” he said. “If you look at my first record, Introducing Kenny Garrett [1985], I had Woody Shaw. On my second record [1989’s Garrett 5], I had Elvin Jones and Ron Carter. African Exchange Student [1990] was the one with Ron Carter and Elvin Jones. On [1992’s] Black Hope, I had Joe Henderson. I always wanted the elders to be there, so I can make sure that I was moving in the right direction. I’ve just been blessed to be around so many great musicians.”

Once while recording with Shaw, Garrett remembered the horn player remarking, “’I was wondering how you were going to resolve that.’ Well, I was wondering, too, but I least he knew what I was trying to do. [The elders are] there for that reason. And sometimes we forget, because we’re moving, and we’re trying to find ourselves, and we’re trying to find our way. But I always paid homage to the elders.”

“Sometimes we can’t get to the person, but I don’t like to do tributes to the elders when they’re not here. I really like to speak to them while they’re here. And that’s why I’ve had great relationships with people like Sonny Rollins and Brother Yusef Lateef, who’s since passed on.” The saxophonist credited those crucial relationships with helping take Garrett “to the next level” as a young player.

Though Garrett remains mindful of the ancestors, his work is never mired in the past. Sounds From The Ancestors is no exception. The recording typifies the Ghanaian concept of Sankofa, a time-unifying notion of retrieving the past, while simultaneously facing forward. He concludes, “I think about the past and the elders and connecting everything together, and it being as a whole, or as one.” DB

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