Alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett is a jazz ecstatic. His stock in trade as an improviser is a solo style that pursues passionate repetition in an effort to reach a transformative musical state.
Garrett's opening set Tuesday, at the start of a six-night run at the Jazz Bakery, provided a prime example of his improvisational methods, of their strengths as well as their weaknesses.
When things were working well, when his fiery lines--filled with repetitious motifs that were twisted, turned, constantly reexamined--built toward almost trance-like climaxes, Garrett's music was irresistible.
On several numbers, he played long solo segments accompanied only by the drums of Jeff "Tain" Watts. The connection to the work of legendary tenor saxophonist John Coltrane (and drummer Elvin Jones) was obvious. Garrett clearly has been influenced by Coltrane, but he has employed that influence toward his own ends. Avoiding imitative Coltranesque lines and passages, he draws inspiration, instead, from Coltrane's improvisational methodology, from his fervent desire to reach into the heart of the music.
When things were working less well, Garrett's musical quest assumed a quixotic character. In those moments, his lines became reminiscent of recycled '60s avant-garde jazz, full of offbeat sounds and thematic repetitions that did little more than spiral back upon themselves.
Garrett's choice of Coltrane's "Giant Steps"--one of the more difficult contemporary jazz lines--created further problems. The work's complex chord structure places procedural demands upon an improviser that are not present in more modally constructed tunes. Garrett had no problems with the harmonies--he is a superb musician--but in the process, he lost some of his own emotional intensity. Trying to regain it, he was forced to move beyond the harmonies into a free-style improvisational passage that essentially abandoned the original theme and its harmonies.
Still, Garrett was never less than fascinating. Hearing him was like seeing a gripping but uneven film--one that, despite its flaws, provoked both the mind and the emotions.
In addition to Watts' extraordinary drumming, Garrett was aided by the imaginative, melodic piano work of Kenny Kirkland and the sturdy bass playing of Nat Reeves.
The Kenny Garrett Quartet at the Jazz Bakery, 3233 Helms Ave., Culver City; (310) 271-9039, through Sunday. $18 cover tonight, 8:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 10 p.m., and Sunday, 8 p.m. $20 cover Friday and Saturday, 8:30 p.m., and Sunday, 6 p.m. $16 cover tonight at 10.