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Pop Music : Kenny G Gives Long-Winded Performance at Amphitheatre

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“The world’s greatest living saxophonist . . . Kenny G!”

Incredibly, that was singer Michael Bolton’s description of his partner during Friday’s opening program of the duo’s eight-night run at Universal Amphitheatre.

But if Bolton’s characterization seemed effusive in the extreme, it was no more overblown than the performance itself, which started late and ran on, interminably, past midnight.

Kenny G--as he bills himself--is clearly not an artist who has yet discovered the mature creative values of economy and conciseness. Every piece featured the same extended saxophone solos, variously on alto, tenor and soprano, all assembled from the same repetitious blues licks.

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With rare exception, the numbers all fell into similar patterns--soft ensemble chording on the ballads, funk-driven rhythms on the tempo tunes--and the soloing was interchangeable from one piece to another.

G has discovered a growing fondness for the spotlight, and one that has flourished considerably since his last appearance in the area. Brief features for the members of his back-up ensemble were the only moments when the focus moved away from the saxophonist. And even then he appeared reluctant to leave center stage.

Bassist Vail Johnson and guitarist John Raymond, for example, were obliged to share the opening part of their features via duets with G. Raymond’s skills, modest at most, demanded no more space than they got. But Johnson, an explosively energetic performer, burst out of his exchanges with G into a colorful, stage-stalking, rhythm stomping solo that gave the saxophonist all the competition he could handle. A duet between drummer Bruce Carter and percussionist Ron Powell was too truncated to allow either performer to stretch out, and keyboardist Robert Damper had little opportunity to do anything other than solid support work.

There was plenty of time, however, for G to stretch out. Twice he took long-winded solo excursions through the audience--a pied piper with a portable microphone. Several numbers were dominated by the trickery of circular breathing techniques, which allowed him to hold notes and play patterns for seemingly impossible lengths of time. Others featured rapid-fire fingering that made his line sound as though it was being played by two instruments.

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But it was all circus stuff--the kind of technical gimmickry most professional saxophonists learn early and quickly abandon in favor of richer forms of expression. Like the bar-walking saxophonists of the ‘50s and the heavy-metal lead guitarists who are his real models, G appeared more concerned with theater, with impression, with appearance, than with enriching the content of his music.

Most of the program, in fact, had a prepackaged quality. G’s exchanges with the audience--overflowing with determinedly ingenuous nice guy smiles and “Oh wow, this is so fun!” and “I wish I could ask you all a bunch of questions, but I don’t know what to say!” commentary--sounded exactly like his remarks during last year’s performances.

Only Michael Bolton’s opening set was different, enlarged no doubt due to his increased visibility as a solo artist. But his blue-eyed soul style--especially on a classic like Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay"--is an acquired taste, and one which requires almost complete ignorance of the more fruitful sources upon which it is based.

Kenny G and Michael Bolton continue at the Amphitheatre tonight and Wednesday through Saturday. All performances except the final one are sold out.


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