Kenny Garrett & Svoy: What’s Next Is Now!

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​“To me, it’s not a departure,” says Kenny Garret, right, with Svoy at his side. “My teacher was Miles Davis, so I’ve always been open to all genres of music.”

(Photo: Jimmy and Dena Katz)

It’s 8:30 in the morning, and Kenny Garrett is walking. He does this most mornings, on a track near his home in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, about 45 minutes outside of New York City.

“Hold on, let me find a spot that’s a little quieter,” he says over the din of traffic. “It’s noisier than I thought it would be out here.” He normally begins his walk around 7 a.m., before the morning rush, starting later on this day so he can multitask his workout with this interview.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Garrett is an early riser. He certainly was just that when he launched his musical career as a prodigious alto saxophonist from Detroit. He joined the Duke Ellington band while still a teenager, followed by stints with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, Art Blakey, Donald Byrd, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, Cedar Walton and Wallace Roney. Garrett’s ascension became stratospheric when he joined Miles Davis’ band in the spring of 1987. This all happened before his 27th birthday.

Nearly four decades later, that ongoing trajectory has put Garrett into an orbit far above all except the loftiest of jazz icons past and present. At age 63, he isn’t showing any signs of slowing, as evidenced by his early morning exercise regimen and by his busy performance schedule, which includes a four-night run at the Blue Note in New York, followed by a 16-day tour in support of his 2021 album, Sounds From The Ancestors (Mack Avenue).

And Garrett is about to release his 18th album as a leader or co-leader, a collaboration with electronic music artist Svoy titled, provocatively, Who Killed AI? (Mack Avenue).

“The title actually came from a friend of mine, Skip Pruitt,” explains Garrett, who had let his Detroit-born saxophone colleague listen to the new album. “I think he had watched something on 60 Minutes or something, and he’s like, yeah, man, you know that sounds like ‘Who Killed A.I.’” Svoy’s metallic percussion grooves and dreamy synth soundscapes could certainly evoke Brad Fiedel’s hauntingly dystopian soundtrack to The Terminator, the 1984 blockbuster movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as the un-killable robotic assassin sent by Skynet, that most famous of cinematic artificial intelligence threats to humankind.

If any jazz musician could defeat Arnold’s T-800, surely it would be Kenny Garrett, who has over his long career obliterated any obstacles along the way to his crowning as next in line to the storied pantheon of alto saxophonists, after Bird, Cannonball, Ornette, Dolphy, Woods. There are others who have since toed that lineage: Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, Jaleel Shaw and David Binney to name a few. Yet it was Garrett who captured the love and admiration of a new generation of jazz musicians in the 21st century: Will Vinson, Jon Irabagon, Casey Benjamin (who passed away at age 45 at the time of this writing), Braxton Cook, Lakecia Benjamin and Immanuel Wilkins, the altoist who currently sits atop the DownBeat Critics Poll for Alto Saxophonist of the Year, a year after Garrett had done the same (the 14th time Garrett had won the award for alto in either the Readers or Critics polls).

Wilkins lauds Garrett as one of his earliest and most formative influences. “This might be a bold statement,” he offered, “but similar to the way that there was life before Charlie Parker and after Charlie Parker, in a lot of ways there’s life before Kenny Garrett, life after Kenny Garrett.”

Speaking to DownBeat by phone from his hometown of Philadelphia, Wilkins recounted his first gig as a leader there, performing a number of Garrett’s compositions. “I was a fanatic,” he said. “There was a certain immediacy to his sound that caught my attention, and I think he’s responsible for the new sound of alto saxophone. It sounds like something that should have been around forever, way before Kenny. To arrive at something that is so blatantly obvious in hindsight is actual genius.”

That huge, warm, undeniably expressive sound is still Garrett’s hallmark, but Who Killed AI? might challenge established perceptions of who Kenny Garrett is as an artist, even as he burns in typically spectacular K.G. fashion over the robotic, futuristic synthetizations on the album’s liftoff track, “Ascendence.” This project, done entirely on a laptop without an actual band of fellow jazz musicians, seems to be a departure from every other album Garrett has done to date.

He disagrees. “To me, it’s not a departure,” he says. “My teacher was Miles Davis, so I’ve always been open to all genres of music, you know, playing with Peter Gabriel and Sting, doing stuff with Bruce Hornsby. I practice interpreting music … to put my voice on the music. So, I never think of this as a departure or anything, it’s just like a continuation.”

A continuing story that began 20 years ago, when a young jazz pianist and composer from Vladivostok named Misha Tarasov met Kenny Garrett. Tarasov, fresh out of school at Berklee College of Music, was basking in the glow of winning the BMI John Lennon Award for songwriters (and having the award handed to him from Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono). He had adopted a moniker, Svoy, which can be loosely translated from Russian as “self contained,” fitting for a solo artist who normally composes and produces his music entirely by himself.

“I remember that that Kenny had initially spoken about me writing some tunes for him at some point, I guess in 2004,” Svoy says, on the same call with Garrett, speaking by phone from Parsippany, New Jersey, less than half an hour drive from Garrett’s home in Glen Ridge. “I could not quite believe [it], because it felt a little bit unreal that someone, anyone, would ask basically a college kid to write some music. So I thought that I might have had a little bit of extra alcohol on that day — but I did not,” he quickly asserts, “I only had one drink.”

Svoy eventually ended up doing some work for Garrett, providing vocals on Garrett’s 2012 album Seeds From The Underground (Mack Avenue) and a string arrangement on his next one, Pushing The World Away (Mack Avenue, 2013). “He was actually in the studio a lot when I was recording,” Garrett remembers. “He would come by and visit, and there were some things that I needed — that was one of the ways we hooked up.”

All the while, Svoy continued to work on his own electronic music career, producing a bevy of solo albums and collaborating with artists ranging from Lenny White and Adam Levy to Claudia Acuña and Meshell Ndegeocello. Finally, the timing was right for both of them to realize their long-discussed project. “Tiny steps,” Svoy muses. “Kenny has been one of the people who I’ve really looked up to. Getting to meet him in person when I got to the States, and eventually working with him, it just means … well, I can’t really put it into words.”

That they lived not far from each other made recording the album quite simple: Svoy would put a track together, then bring his laptop over to Garrett’s house, where the saxophonist would listen to it, come up with a melody and improvise to what he was hearing. “Yup, right in the living room,” Svoy affirms.

“Yeah, well, that’s Kenny Garrett’s studio,” says Garrett, chuckling jovially. “It was so free and so easy, you know? I think it’s probably one of the easiest records I’ve done, not having the pressure of getting in the studio … . There’s no stress to really have to perform, it’s just having fun.” In the capable hands of an experienced laptop producer like Svoy, it was a liberating revelation for Garrett.

“I got a laptop back in the early 2000s when I was still at Berklee,” says Svoy. “I’ve been making music in my bedroom since I was 15 years old.” This places Svoy on the electronic music timeline before the advent of Ableton Live and the many post-millennial artists who have used that digital audio platform to jump off into social media fame and fortune. Svoy, who recently turned 44, continues to use the time-tested Digital Performer, which he first learned while in college, later honing those skills when he apprenticed with television composer Mike Post. “There is an audience in the studio, and you have to prepare and behave a certain way,” Svoy explains. “While you are creating on a laptop at home, you can just relax completely — you don’t [even] have to have your clothes on.”

Garrett isn’t confirming or denying whether he was fully clothed during his sessions, but regardless he appreciated both the comfort of recording at home and the authenticity of the electronic sounds his counterpart designed for him, sounds he’s always wanted to explore and emulate. He remembers, “When I was playing with Kenny Kirkland, Jeff [‘Tain‘ Watts] and Nat Reeves, we wanted to do drum and bass. I was like, ‘Wow, this is interesting, we’re playing what they’re playing, but it doesn’t sound like that.’ And then I realized it was the coloring of it, the drum machines they were using, the sounds they were using, we weren’t using them. It sounded more like fusion because it was more of an acoustic sound.”

Ironically, fusion was responsible for moving jazz from an acoustic to an electric sound. During his time with Miles Davis and in the immediate years following, Garrett himself used a number of electronic effects to enhance both his sound and the music he made, particularly on his 1989 album Prisoner Of Love (Atlantic), but he switched to an all-acoustic paradigm on his next album for Atlantic, African Exchange Student (1990). That album was a catalyst for a shade of modern acoustic jazz that worked through Garrett’s albums of that decade, peaking with the 1995 masterpiece Triology (Warner Bros.) and his next two critically acclaimed albums for Warner, Pursuance: The Music of John Coltrane (1996), and Songbook (1999), records which ultimately cemented his status as one of the most outstanding straightahead jazz musicians of his generation. During that time, he recorded and toured with another leading electric jazz pioneer, Chick Corea, but it was for the pianist’s decidedly acoustic, bebop-oriented homage, Remembering Bud Powell (Stretch, 1997). It’s taken nearly 35 years for Garrett to don once again the electric colors he wore with Davis.

There are two tracks on Who Killed AI? that are in direct tribute to the Prince of Darkness, the harbinger of fusion. “Miles Running Down AI” charges out of the gate with a kinetic, industrial beat, in contrast with the loping, slow-developing groove of the track’s namesake, “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” from the groundbreaking 1969 album Bitches Brew (Columbia), yet the wah-pedal effects, combined with Garrett’s emulation on soprano saxophone of both Davis’ and Wayne Shorter’s playing styles, certainly evoke that early era of free-fusion.

The second tribute is perhaps the most moving track on the album. Garrett, again on soprano, slow walks a mournful melody over a densely layered, rhythmically active but harmonically static drone. It might take a minute to realize he is playing the melody to one of Davis’ most iconic ballads over the poignant panoply of sonic colors and textural rhythms. “You know, the thing about ‘My Funny Valentine,’” says Garrett, “it wasn’t really ‘My Funny Valentine.’ There was a vibe that I heard there, and I started playing that melody … . I just injected that melody in there.”

He elaborates, “I was with Miles for five-and-a-half years, so the language is there. Of course, we were trying to get a couple of tunes to sound like that for sure. We definitely touched on some of the experiences I had with Miles, and other people.”

The album, as fun as it was to make, often manages a seriousness and profundity that radiated from the core of Davis’ music. “Miles is always there,” Garrett says. “Not only Miles, but Freddie and Woody, all the elders are there because they shared their musical experiences with me. At some point,” he continues, “on certain tunes, Pharoah’s spirit will be there.”

Those who continued to trace Garrett’s career past the Y2K line would know that Garrett invited Pharoah Sanders to record together on Beyond The Wall (Nonesuch, 2006) and Sketches Of MD: Live At The Iridium (Mack Avenue, 2008), featuring some of Garrett’s most visceral musical statements on record. As he first intimated on Pursuance, the specter of John Coltrane can be readily heard in Garrett’s tone, his intensity, his passion. Yet Sanders, who helped Coltrane fully realize his ultimate potential on the way to his final transformation from jazz saxophonist to spiritual leader, appears to inspire Garrett to rise to a similar plane of enlightenment, in the process making Garrett one of the few (if not the only) after Coltrane himself to play and record with both Davis and Sanders.

Perhaps Davis and Sanders can be seen through the reverse clairvoyance of history as kindred spirits. They were as enigmatic figures in jazz as have ever existed, men who could command authority without having to say much.

“Even though they weren’t speaking, they were speaking, you know?” Garrett offers. “They said minimum words, but they were speaking through their music, and I think that’s what pulled me in, from both of my mentors.”

And both of them, like Garrett, continued to find new expressions in music. Sanders’ last recorded work was 2023’s Promises (Luaka Bop), a collaboration with Floating Points, who, like Svoy, is an electronic musician and producer who desired to collaborate with his jazz saxophone hero to produce and introduce a synthesis of their music to new audiences. Younger musicians continue to seek knowledge from their elders, crossing generations, cultures and genres in the process. Garrett was once the youthful apprentice; he is now the master, even a few years older than Davis was when the trumpeter first hired Garrett to play in his band.

Having arrived at that same life stage, does Garrett understand better where Miles was coming from at the end of his life? “You want to continue to grow as a as a human and a musician for sure, and I think if you have these different projects, that helps you to continue to try to keep on honing your craft,” he posits. “It might seem a departure, but it’s something that I need in life. I need to keep getting up every day, trying to get ready for the next chapter.

“I now understand that at some point [Miles] couldn’t continue to do the same thing, because it wouldn’t allow him to continue to grow as a human. And so, it’s the same thing: I have to continue to grow, even though people prefer you in a certain place. I continue to grow, and I’m not departing. I’m still just playing music. I’m excited about life. I’m on the track, trying to walk, trying to get it together, trying to keep it together.”

With that utterance, Kenny Garrett laughs heartily as he continues around the track, stepping towards the next thing, not walking away from anything. DB



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