"This is sooo fun!" says Kenny G, strolling out onstage before yet another sold-out crowd. Ever amiable, ever eager to please, enjoying every minute of his remarkably successful career, the slender Pied Piper of Pop has yet to meet an audience he hasn't loved.
"Sure, I love people," says the saxophonist, who opens a four-night stand at the Greek Theatre on Wednesday, followed by a performance at the Pacific Amphitheatre next Sunday, "and I want to communicate with people. I mean, what is music anyway? It's a form of communication--at least for me it is. And that's why I play the kind of music that I think--that I hope--can communicate with people."
"Communicate" may not the right description. "And sell records like crazy" might be a more appropriate addendum. Kenny G., whose last name is Gorelick, has been a force in the pop music marketplace since his career exploded in 1987 with the release of his fourth album, the multi-platinum "Duotones," and the hit single "Songbird."
"I was really amazed when I started hearing 'Songbird' on the radio," Gorelick, 37, recalls. "I couldn't believe that the record company promotion department had actually convinced radio music directors to play it--because there wasn't anything like it on the radio at the time. And there was some resistance, obviously. This wasn't the kind of music that you would hear on KIIS-FM. But all of a sudden I started hearing it--and on stations where you'd hear a Whitney Houston song or a Pink Floyd song. I mean, I was pinching myself and saying, 'Am I dreaming this, or is this for real?' "
"Duotones" was followed by "Silhouette," "Kenny G Live" and the current "Breathless," which together have generated sales of more than 20 million albums. "Breathless" entered the Billboard 200 at No. 9 and peaked at No. 2; earlier this month, after 42 weeks on the chart, it was still No. 21.
Record companies are reluctant to provide details of specific artist deals. But it would not be unreasonable, says Bill Traut of Open Door Management, a veteran jazz and pop producer and manager, "to expect that Kenny is earning in the neighborhood of $1.25 an album." Added to that are the revenues from his frequent international tours, often including four and five sold-out performances at major venues. And the live performances always affect his record sales. According to Billboard, "Breathless" had sold about 15,000 units before a five-day publicity tour by Gorelick. Afterward, sales topped 150,000, the album went double platinum and was No. 1 on the Australia-New Zealand album charts.
How does that compare to, say, Miles Davis or Duke Ellington--among the most visible artists and instrumentalists in the history of jazz and popular music? "There's not much comparison," says jazz producer Ralph Jungheim. "With one or two exceptions, Ellington rarely sold records in big numbers, and he always said his orchestra was a hobby he supported with his songwriting income."
And although Davis scored well in his last few years with Warner Bros., "his numbers weren't at Kenny G's level," Traut says. "He may have been making a similar royalty figure, but he simply didn't sell as many albums."
So what's going on here? How does a moderately gifted saxophone player from Seattle become what his record company describes as "the No. 1 instrumental artist of all time"? Even granting the hyperbole of the statement (which, in terms of sheer commercial achievement, probably could be challenged by Herb Alpert), there's no questioning the impact Gorelick has had on the marketplace, as well as on other saxophonists.
Gorelick, identified as President Clinton's favorite sax player (a certification that may have lowered Clinton's popularity rating in the opinions of many traditional jazz fans), has pretty well defined the instrument as a new, upfront pop music voice of the '90s. It is the rare jazz band these days that does not prominently feature a saxophone player, and a growing list of young saxophonists have been releasing solo albums.
Not everyone thinks a trend is in the wind, however.
Don Lucoff of New York City's DL Media, a longtime handler of both jazz and new adult contemporary artists, believes that Gorelick's success has been strongly associated with the emergence of NAC--the new adult contemporary radio format, an instrumental-oriented programming mix that can include artists ranging from George Benson and Brenda Russell to Donald Fagen and Ottmar Leibert.
"The ironic thing about the NAC stations," Lucoff says, "is that they use the word jazz for credibility--for so-called coolness, and a connection with something that's hip. But they don't play jazz. And that's the oxymoron of this whole NAC radio phenomenon--how they use jazz in a marketing sense and then play Kenny G instead of Joe Henderson."
But the bottom line, Lucoff says, is that "G is an anomaly. He's shown that there's a chance for instrumental music to reach the pop culture. But it's not something that happens every day. It's generated a certain amount of success by instrumentalists like Candy Dulfer and Dave Koz on a somewhat lower level, but Kenny G's in a whole different place. He's one of a kind."
And one not necessarily favored by critical acclaim, despite his extensive public acceptance. Even Gorelick's most favorable notices employ such descriptive phrases as "easy-sleazy jazz sax," "sweet, well-intentioned music" and "rinky-dink saxophone overtures."
Still, a cursory look at the number of saxophonists with albums on the best-selling charts, as well as at the multiplicity of albums in general featuring saxophonists, suggests that Gorelick has had an influence.
Not only has he opened the commercial door for other saxophonists, he has helped them financially through the model of success he represents. It seems highly unlikely, for example, that Koz could sell albums--as he does--in the 100,000-plus range or that Warren Hill could be cruising the top of the best-selling charts without Gorelick's trailblazing.
For example, the new adult contemporary chart in a recent issue of Radio & Records (an L.A.-based trade publication) listed albums by saxophonists Koz at No. 3, Art Porter at No. 5, Hill at No. 11 and George Howard at No. 13. In the past year or so, new releases have arrived from, among many others, Candy Dulfer, Sonja Jason, Walter Beasley, Kirk Whalum, Everett Harp, Gerald Albright and Richard Elliot. Sidemen such as Michael Pollo (with Al Jarreau), Jeff Kashiwa (with the Rippingtons) and Jay Beckenstein (with Spyro Gyra) have moved from the background to the spotlight.
Traut agrees that Gorelick has had an impact on the commercial viability of young saxophonists. And he adds that "many older mainstream musicians, like (Joe) Henderson, also have benefited from the increased attention to instrumental music, however you want describe it--jazz, modified urban contemporary, NAC."
But Traut worries that "in between people like Henderson and both the younger mainstream guys like Roy Hargrove and Antonio Hart and the younger commercial guys like Kenny and Koz, there's a generation, maybe a generation and a half, of jazzmen who are not necessarily being helped at all. And there are a lot of wonderful sax players in that group who don't fit into either category--Bob Shepard, Ricky Woodard, Dave Liebman, Bill Evans, just to name a few."
The jazz issue raised by Lucoff and Traut is a tricky one for many of the younger contemporary players. Some have established jazz careers, while others work from a blues foundation. But all are eager to make the crossover to the pop audience as well. In some respects, their situation is not dissimilar from that of such saxophonists as Flip Phillips, Illinois Jacquet and Don Byas, who--while performing with Jazz at the Philharmonic in the '40s and '50s--established a showboating, upfront saxophone style that achieved considerable popularity at the time.
More recently, Grover Washington Jr. and George Howard have demonstrated--through their blues-based styles--yet another way to adapt jazz for a large audience.
In fact, Gorelick's popularity may be the culmination of a saxophone splitting away from jazz that began nearly two decades ago with the frequent appearances of Michael Brecker and, especially, David Sanborn as featured soloists on a large number of pop recordings. Sanborn's blues-drenched style, strongly influenced by Hank Crawford and David (Fathead) Newman, had an energizing effect upon a generation of young saxophonists. Many imitated Sanborn to the point of slavishness.
"Unlike a lot of players who were a little bit older," Sanborn says, "I didn't come out of a school of playing that was be-bop oriented, and I don't have a real command of that harmonic vocabulary. I think, instead, that what I do rhythmically is the basis of what's different about my playing. I think that, as much as anything else, and maybe more, the rhythmic context defines the way I approach music--it kind of provides the structure and underscores the harmony."
Other players took the Sanborn sound and the Sanborn rhythmic style into the realm of melody in search of more commercially viable styles.
Richard Elliot, for example, discovered a fascination with melody to match the big tenor sound and energetic rock rhythms acquired during his days with Tower of Power. "There's nothing wrong with expanding musical horizons," he says. "But there's nothing wrong with simple musical enjoyment either."
Alto saxophonist Sonja Jason notes that she listened to Spyro Gyra and Tom Scott rather than Charlie Parker while she was a young musician. Pleased that her song-oriented style has a "unique quality that sounds like me," she also expresses her belief in the importance of balancing music with marketing savvy. "My principal strength is that I know who I am," she explains, "and I'm real clear about what I'm doing out there. Music, for me, is not a sport. It's about authenticity, about making a living and about being respected by your peers."
Koz, whose regular Thursday-night appearances on "The Arsenio Hall Show" have boosted both his visibility and his record sales, started out with a strong jazz orientation and a powerful confidence in the importance of finding one's own voice. "Stan Getz was an inspiration for me, in that sense," he says, "because when he played one note, you knew exactly who it was."
But, after spending time working as a Los Angeles session musician, Koz moved away from mainstream jazz. "Although I appreciate it tremendously," he explains, "it's really not for me--it's not what's in my heart."
Like Gorelick, Koz has begun to discover a solid bond with his audience--one that relates directly to his music. "Cliched as it sounds," he says with a laugh, "I love getting in front of an audience. I've never been a meek performer, and something takes over me when I get in front of a group of people. I just love interacting with the audience."
Gorelick too started out with a strong jazz orientation, working with the Jeff Lorber band, in a chair that was later held by Art Porter and Koz. "I used to love that fusion stuff. But I guess in my heart I always wanted things to be a little simpler--a little more melodic.
"When I listen to tapes from that period, I'm always surprised by how little focus my sound has. That's been one of the big changes that's taken place since the early '80s. The other is the way the saxophone has become so much more a part of me. On the good nights, when the sax feels like it's not a saxophone and it's just like your mouth talking, there's no better feeling. That's when the communication with the audience can really happen."
Essentially content with his life, and his recent marriage to longtime sweetheart Lyndie Benson (for whom he wrote "Songbird"), Gorelick is unfazed by the rush to dissect, analyze and explain his achievements. The jazz-pop distinctions bother him not at all. Among the many things that make a greater claim for his attention are flying and golf. Licensed for multi-engine craft, he pilots the band's Lear jet between performances.
"Being at the controls--that's really something," he says enthusiastically. "When we were flying back east one night, there was a point at which we could see Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York City, all at the same moment. I just love it. Flying is so fantastic."
When he has a spare afternoon, he heads straight for the golf course ("I'm actually getting to be pretty good") and tries not to pay attention to the critics who "don't seem to get where I'm coming from."
"A lot of people don't realize," he says, "that playing a melody with the right kind of vibrato, and a certain specific tone and feeling, and the way you glissando up to a note, or fall off a note, are just as difficult, in their own way, as playing 20,000 notes that are in or outside of a key. Technique is technique.
"I mean, I'm not doing this for the recognition," Gorelick concludes with a sigh. "This is just what I do. It's not better, it's not worse, it's not easier, it's not harder. It's just me."