Famed jazz musician Kenny G has released his latest LP New Standards, which is his first solo album release since Brazilian Nights in 2015.
Prior to the release, HBO aired a new documentary about the artist titled Listening to Kenny G, which talks about his polarizing style and his opinions about what he loves about music as an art form to his relationship to his listeners.
Kenny G is one of the best-selling musicians of all time, having sold over 75 million albums. He burst on the scene in 1986 with his LP Duotones, and has been a fixture in culture ever since. He’s released nearly 20 albums to date. American Songwriter caught up with the Seattle-born, 65-year-old to ask him about the genesis of his new record, what goes through his mind the night before a release and what the concept of practice and time spent means to him, as an artist.
American Songwriter: What is the feeling in your gut the night before a new album is about to come out?
Kenny G: Absolutely no feelings at all about it. It’s been in what we call “the can” for so long. And I never worry about it. The hardest part for me is going in and doing those final mixes and signing off on the fact that I’m feeling like the notes I played are all the correct ones and everything’s good.
Once I sign off on that, there’s no jitters about what happens as it’s released or on release night at all. Because at that point, it’s completely out of my hands and it almost in some sense doesn’t really matter because I know I’ve satisfied my own criteria.
AS: What was the genesis of the new record? Why this album, why now? Why this style of charming, trance-like vibrations?
KG: Well, why now? It’s six years too late, in a sense. Because it took me six years to make it. I would say that probably in a perfect world, I release a new record every two years, approximately. So, it just takes a long time. So, I don’t know why now other than that’s just how long it took.
Now, as far as the creative side of it, I really wanted to see if I could explore the vibe of these really old classic jazz standards, which have more complex chords, they’re more jazz chords. They’re not the easier pop chords that I’ve used in the past—and not because I label them that, I just don’t know how else to describe them. But let’s just say, there are just certain chords that are just less complicated. And I didn’t make that choice, it’s just that’s the way I wrote my songs.
This one I really wanted to go into the more complicated jazz chords for the songs, but I also wanted to make up the melodies myself. So, I wanted to do what we call the old standards but I wanted to do them with brand new songs. So, that’s why I call it New Standards. I’m trying to capture the romance, the complexity, the sophistication of those old jazz ballads but I wanted to do it with my melodies and playing the structure of the song my way. So, that was the whole idea.
AS: When you set out on a new song, do you feel more like a conduit to the music or more of a construction worker laying each note as if brick by brick?
KG: Good question, I don’t know if I think about it in either one of those ways. It’s just—I don’t believe I’m a conduit. It’s not how I look at it. I look at it like something triggers something, like a melody hits me a certain way, some notes I play in a practice session might be the start or a melody. Or maybe I’m sitting with a keyboard player and he plays a chord structure and I go, “Hey, play that again!” and I come up with a couple of notes.
It just kind of starts like that. It starts off something magical happens where I know that that’s the start of something special. It’s not something I set out to do, like, “Okay, I’m going to write a song right now, in this style.” It just comes with a lot of experimentation. You know, I consider myself a jazz musician. So, it’s all improv, in a sense. I’m improvising and all of a sudden something hits me nicely and I go, “Oh, I like that!” And that becomes the start of something.
AS: You mentioned practice. What is the value of practice to you, specifically, either in music or any other endeavor?
KG: Well, practice, to me, is the whole thing. That’s how you get good at anything. It’s about reps. It’s about reps, doing things the correct way. Anything you want to get good at, you need a bunch of reps. And if get the reps, great! But hopefully the reps are the right kind of reps. You want them to be—you know, if you’re practicing stuff, you want to practice something—you almost can’t go wrong with an instrument. The more you practice, you’re just going to get better.
But I just like the word “reps.” I like reps. I like the fact that if I’m working on let’s say—like today in Evansville, Indiana. And I want to throw in a pattern that I’m working on. So, I’m doing a bunch of reps this afternoon to maybe get those fingers to be more muscle memory on something that might not be quite as muscle memory as things I’ve already been playing for 10 years. So, practice is everything.
If you put the hours in, you’re going to get better. If you practice songwriting, you’ll get better as a songwriter. You practice doing whatever you do, if you practice it you’re going to get better. And that’s how I pretty much do everything. And I enjoy it. I like the practice. Practice is fun to me because I already know what the result is. But I enjoy the practice, too. It’s not just that practice is this arduous task that gets me to the result I want. I enjoy the practice. Practice is the fun part.
AS: Hard work! It’s about hard work, that’s for sure.
KG: It sure is! You got to have hard work. You got to work hard!
AS: These days are shaping up to be something of a Kenny G renaissance, between the new album and the new documentary out with HBO. How do you feel about that and what is your relationship to your audience today?
KG: Well, it feels great actually at my age and as long as I’ve been doing what I’m doing. I think I’m on my 40th year since I’ve had a record deal. So, that’s pretty amazing that I’m still out here just playing gigs and I feel like it’s current. I feel like I’m just doing what I did 40 years ago in the sense that we’re playing shows and promoters want to book me and people want to come see me play, which is fantastic.
So, I love it. I love the fact that’s it’s all happening. And flattered that HBO thought that the idea of doing a documentary about me and my music and how it affects people in both positive and negative ways, I thought that was a very nice angle. I thought it was an interesting angle and I liked—I’m not shy about talking about that. So, I think that’s why the documentary is getting such good reviews, because it’s not just a fluff piece about my career and my success.
I mean, you could do that. But that’s not really the theme of the movie. The theme of the movie is how music affects people in different ways and how people deal with that. And I think that’s a really interesting topic. I just happen to be the—I would say I’m the subject of that topic and I’m happy to be part of it.
AS: Okay, I’m calling from Seattle today, where I know you’re from. And when you were here you famously played a note for 10-minutes during an early concert when you were supposed to play a solo. And the crowd went nuts. Later, you played your single, “Songbird,” on a late night show when you were supposed to play another song. What made you take these chances and do you think about them at all these days?
KG: Well, I don’t think about them too much—I’m going to go back to reps. I have a lot of reps of doing that. So, that’s my thing. I don’t even think about it. I just kind of just—I’m not mad with somebody if they disagree with me. Or if they insist that do something and I know that I’m not doing to do it. I’m not mad or anything. I’ll just go, “well, I’ve heard everything you said. But here’s what’s going to happen. This is what’s going to happen. This is what I’m going to play.”
If someone says, “Well, we don’t think you should do that.” I say, “Well, I understand that. But here’s what I’m going to do…” And that’s all there is to it! People, sometimes they don’t know how to handle it because there’s no anger, I’m not anxious. I’m just saying—so, yes, those things are really important. I think that’s why I really like part of the documentary that talks about those things that happened as decisions that I’ve always made.
I’ve just known what’s right when it comes to my music and my career. I’ve just known. And if I have to fight against somebody like a TV producer or even with [record producer and collaborator] Clive Davis. We’ve had our differences and Clive will say to me something like, “Kenny, I think this is a big career mistake!” And I say, “Well, I appreciate that Clive.” But he also says, which I love about Clive Davis, he says, “I am here to help you and advise you but ultimately it’s your career.”
I tell Clive, “Look, I’m going to take the chance here. I think this is the right move. And please let’s do this.” And he’s all behind it, which is beautiful. But you have to be—you have to kind of know. And if you don’t know, then it’s easy for you to go with other people’s ideas and then you see how it goes. Who knows? Maybe somebody has some better ideas than you. But in my career? I have all the best ideas for me! I just know it! So, I just continue with that.
If someone asks, “What songs are we going to play at our show tonight?” I’m going t figure it no matter if somebody says, “Hey, we should play this!” I say, “Thanks for the suggestion! But here’s the set list!” That’s the way it is.
AS: Last one for you, what do you love most about music?
KG: [That question] is in the documentary, isn’t it! [Laughs] In the documentary [I’m asked that] and my answer is, “I’m not sure I love music.” But that wasn’t really the real answer. I was just rambling. But of course I love music. I do. But in a sense, like, I thought the question was more like, if I’m going to sit home and put my feet up, do you think the first thing I’m going to do is turn on music? And the answer’s no.
No, I need my brain to rest. Because when I listen to music, my brain starts to think about the notes that every instrument’s playing that I hear. I think about the musicians that are playing it. I think about, “Hmm, I wonder who’s playing that part? I wonder how long they’ve been practicing?” All these things. And it’s like, okay my brain is not resting at all. So, that’s where I don’t really love to just sit home and listen to music.
But what I do love about music is I love the fact that—I don’t know, I think I just love the musicians. I just love the dedication that the musicians who are playing music have to have. If you’re going to be a great musician, you have to have that dedication. And I just respect all the musicians that are out here who have played their instruments for decades and decades like me that commit all that time and energy to try to become a really great musician. I think that’s what I really love about music. That dedication and just being part of that club of those people that do that.
Photos courtesy Kenny G