G-forces Labeled by the critics as a one-note wonder, and surprised by his own success, Kenny G finds a comfort zone inside his melodies.

January 01, 1998|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

It's official: Kenny G is the world's most long-winded musician.

In early December, the frizzy-haired saxophonist set the record for the longest-held note -- an E flat sustained for 45 minutes and 47 seconds. With an official from the Guinness Book of World Records on hand to verify the feat, G played the E flat in front of a reportedly breathless crowd at the J&R Music World store in Manhattan.

What ultimately stopped him was not a lack of air, but a surfeit of spit. "He eventually was forced to stop because of all the saliva that built up inside the instrument," Mark C. Young, the Guinness Book's publisher, told reporters.

Still, though the stunt assured G of his place in the record book, it also underscored what critics consider to be his greatest weakness. While that 45-minute note may have dazzled his fans, the truth is that listening to it is breathtakingly boring.

Much the same, claim critics, can be said of his albums. Never mind that he is the best-selling instrumentalist of our time. As far as reviewers are concerned, Kenny G's music is about as exciting as listening to paint dry. He has been mocked in every major music magazine, and made fun of on everything from "The Simpsons" to "Saturday Night Live."

None of this has deterred fans of his soothing, airily melodic albums, a group that includes first saxophonist Bill Clinton. Since the release of "Duotones" in 1986, his albums have routinely sold in the millions. "Breathless," which came out in 1992, is well-past the 10 million mark. Needless to say, expectations are that his new album, "Greatest Hits," will add yet another platinum award to his collection.

Oddly enough, that's part of what peeves the G-Man's detractors. "One of the reasons he's disproportionately hated by hard-core jazz people is because jazz fans, the hard-core fans, like to pretend that jazz is art music," says Gene Santoro, jazz critic for the New York Daily News. As Santoro explains, the fact that Kenny G started out playing fusion jazz is enough to make these listeners believe the saxophonist simply decided to cash out and pursue commerce over art.

"Of course. That kind of goes without saying," answers the 41-year-old saxophonist, over the phone from his Seattle home. "People think that I do what I do because it sells records, and that I'm turning my back on a more complicated, challenging type of playing because I'm more interested in being popular and in selling records."

He almost laughs at the thought. "That's as far from the truth as anything could be," he says. "When you're doing an art form, you have to do what you think is expressing something meaningful. It has to be something that's long-term, and to me, a good melody is something that's long-term. It means more than playing a bunch of fast licks."

Kenny G didn't come to this conclusion easily. Back when he was still Kenny Gorelick, a sax-playing kid growing up in Seattle, his idol was Grover Washington, whose approach to the saxophone was lithe and funky enough to make him the only jazz star on the Motown roster. G's own career covered similar ground in the '70s, as he moved from Barry White's Love Unlimited Orchestra to Jeff Lorber's fusion combo before finally setting out on his own.

He released his first solo album, "Kenny G," in 1982 and, by '85, had two more in the racks. His music was typical early-'80s fusion -- light, funky grooves with plenty of tasteful noodling by Mr. G -- and it sold passably well. But as time went by, this improvisatorial approach wasn't really fulfilling.

"I just felt like there weren't any melodies in there," he says. "It didn't seem to make a lot of sense. The music was -- I mean, it was just a bunch of improvisation over a groove. It was boring to me.

"I wanted to do things that had melodies and structure," he says. "I thought that if you wanted to listen to something 10 years later, it has to be a piece of music, as opposed to just a bunch of notes."

So he honed his writing, focused his playing, and began to approach the melody much as a singer would. Suddenly, he was a hit -- something that still seems to surprise him. "I was kind of doing my thing, and I was lucky enough that radio seemed to embrace that thing that I was doing. They gave me exposure that was [normally] reserved for vocalists only."

Of course, G has worked with his share of singers over the years. One of his biggest singles was 1992's "Missing You Now," which he recorded with Michael Bolton, while "Greatest Hits" includes collaborations with everyone from Toni Braxton to Frank Sinatra.

But even on the collaborations, the role he takes is more like a singer than an instrumentalist. These are full-blown duets, with G delivering as much of the melody as the vocalist. "I was just trying to be the second part of the song, as opposed to just doing a little sax solo in the middle of a vocal song," he says. "I didn't want to be a sideman anymore."

Parlor trick

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