Kenny G and the Joy of Sax

Miles Davis doesn’t compliment just anybody .

Noted as a standoffish loner, the legendary trumpeter praised sax player Kenny G one day when both were in the same jazz festival lineup.

Davis’ praise was music to G’s ears.

Though he has probably told the story a hundred times, G (whose full surname is Gorelick) gleefully repeated it during breakfast late one morning. Like most people telling Davis stories, Gorelick did an imitation of Davis’ croaky voice.


“Miles came up to me and said, ‘You’re the guy who plays that pretty song (“Songbird”) that the girls like. . . . You’re OK.’ Coming from Miles--the master--who doesn’t say much to anybody, do you know what that meant?”

Such affirmation of his talent is apparently important to Gorelick. Why should he need it? Gorelick is already on the top of the jazz and pop worlds.

Gorelick has a new Arista album, “Silhouette,” and is on a tour that includes two sold-out shows (concluding tonight) at the Universal Amphitheatre.

His last album was an industry phenomenon. It’s rare that either jazz or instrumental albums sell more than 1 million units, but his 1986 instrumental jazz collection “Duotones” sold more than 2 million. Those sales figures were largely due to the album’s big hit single, the rapturous, sweet-toned ballad “Songbird"--only the sixth instrumental to crack the pop Top 10 this decade.


What’s missing for Gorelick, though, is credibility.

Many jazz critics cringe at the mention of his name. To them, he plays the jazz equivalent of elevator music. Yuppie jazz is another term applied to his instrumentals--pleasant but plastic. Most jazz critics and hard-core jazz fans simply don’t take him seriously.

At the mention of critics, Gorelick spouted things like, “I don’t care what the critics say” or “I don’t really read what the critics say.” But that bravado registered false.

Intense and hyper, Gorelick has an endearing, puppy-dog enthusiasm. Camouflaging his emotions isn’t something he does well. As he went on about how the criticism didn’t bother him, there was an inescapable feeling that it did.

“I’m a good player and I write good music,” he said, protesting a bit too much. “What they say doesn’t invalidate what I do.”

But the critics, in one sense, have a point. Gorelick’s poppish, skin-deep jazz can’t compare with the work of sax-playing giants like John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins.

However, this is a new age. Comparing Gorelick to the masters isn’t really fair because jazz--Gorelick’s kind of jazz--is so different. Pop has infiltrated jazz to extent that a whole genre of music--called New Age--has evolved. New Age music is that soft-core, vanilla-flavored, easy-listening jazz that hardly any musicians want to be associated with--Gorelick included.

“My music isn’t New Age,” he insisted vehemently.


Still, New Age fans love him. “Duotones” became such a smash hit album because it appealed to all those yuppish New Agers. One change in radio in recent years is the emergence of stations that play that soothing music. Exposure on those easy-listening stations helped both “Duotones” and the single “Songbird” gather momentum.

Gorelick isn’t a bad player. On ballads, he has a warm, vibrant tone. His music is never searing but it can be touching. You get a better feeling for his skills in concert than you do on his commercially-oriented albums.

He is clearly capable of a much more substantial album--the kind that would please his critics--but it would undoubtedly cost him his pop audience. The pop following he has cultivated doesn’t want to hear sophisticated, elitist jazz.

He is not taking chances on alienating his audience--and you can’t really blame him. His new one, “Silhouette,” is in the same commercial vein as “Duotones.”

“When I was making this album,” he said, “I didn’t think about trying to top the sales of the last album. What I did was try to be sincere and innovative.”

What he did is make a very commercial album--including two vocal cuts, one featuring Smokey Robinson--that should please his fans.

Though Gorelick also plays alto and tenor saxes, he is thought of as a soprano man because that’s what he plays on “Songbird.” Actually Gorelick, 32, started on alto.

As a 10-year-old in Seattle, his hometown, he was so impressed by a soloist on Ed Sullivan’s TV variety show that he asked his parents to get him an alto sax.


“I loved the way that guy was jamming,” he said. “I wanted to be able to improvise like that.”

A self-taught player, Gorelick would record solos and play them on sax during his private practice sessions. You won’t notice much of the classic be-bop style in his playing because he grew up emulating pop horn players like Grover Washington Jr. and R&B-style; horn units like those accompanying Tower of Power and Earth, Wind & Fire.

“I was 20 or 21 when I started listening to guys like Coltrane and Adderley and Charlie Parker,” Gorelick said. “I hadn’t even heard of Coltrane until I had been playing for a long time. I loved what I heard when I started listening to the be-bop players, but I’m still not a be-bopper myself.”

Gorelick came to prominence as a member of the Jeff Lorber Fusion, but has been making solo albums for Arista Records since 1982. The first three--nearly all instrumental--sold progressively better, with the third passing the 300,000 mark. They sold primarily in the jazz and R&B; markets. His fourth, the smash hit “Duotones,” had the advantage of being released when the New Age explosion had increased the audience for soft jazz.

Defending his music once more, Gorelick said, “I write a lot better than I used to and I play a lot better too. I play from the heart. I try and touch people that way. People shouldn’t label my music, they should just listen to it and give it a chance.

“If I’m playing from my heart and I’m being as honest as I can be, what more can people ask?”