Monday, October 5, 2009

Review: Kenny G. Yes, Kenny G. Pikes Peak Center, Sunday, 10/4/2009

Kenny G
"6:00PM DOORS - 7:00PM SHOW" is what it said on the ticket.

As I approached the Pikes Peak center on Cascade Avenue in downtown Colorado Springs Sunday evening, I thought I was plenty early to find parking on the street and get in and get a drink since it was only 5 after 6:00. But I started to get confused. I started seeing more and more people still 2 blocks away walking in the direction of Pikes Peak Center. Traffic was slowing down. The closer I got, the more bewildering it was: Kenny G was playing tonight, and it was a mob scene!

I admit I didn't know what to expect. Kenny G is practically a house-hold name and like many successful commercial and pop artists is the butt of his share of jokes. But like him or not, his music helped solidify and define the "smooth jazz" genre. He has sold millions of albums and has millions of fans worldwide, but this was Colorado Springs: was there something else going on I didn't know about? Some folksy music festival, maybe, outside Pikes Peak Center earlier? No, it's simply this: He's. Packing. Them. In.

Let’s assume for a minute the name doesn't ring a bell. You've probably heard his high soaring soprano saxophone on smooth-jazz radio stations, during Christmas specials on TV, and (perhaps) in an elevator or two. And his first Christmas album "Miracles: The Holiday Album" (Arista/January 1994) with just over 7 million sales in 15 years is the second all-time greatest selling Christmas album after "Elvis' Christmas Album" (RCA Victor/October 1957) with 9 million sales in 50 years.

But it was very clear that Kenny G has a very faithful following in Colorado Springs where he and his band performed at the Pikes Peak Center to a very full house. My guesstimate is around 1700 people were in attendance, most high-toned and well-heeled. This was a good looking crowd largely made up of people in the 30-60 year old range, many couples but as many single men as single women were in attendance. Speaking with a few people in the lobby illustrated just how faithful this crowd was: nearly everybody I talked to claimed to have all his albums (and I count 20 altogether when you include the 3 Christmas albums and 4 "Best Of" type albums), claimed to have bought their tickets the minute they went on sale, and appeared very excited to get to see him live.

The general excitement level rose as Kenny came through the crowd about 20 minutes before the show to a merchandise sales area to sign autographs on the CDs and other items for sale, his trademark long curly hair staying remarkably well-behaved as he laughed and joked with people coming through the line.

And here's where another thing that becomes abundantly clear: Kenny G is actually a pretty genuine guy! He's accessible to his fans, good natured, and as became clear later on during the show when he was bragging about being up to 135 pounds - he doesn't take himself too seriously. He plays golf, has a pilots, license... but I digress.

In general, however, his music It's well arranged, and feels lush and embracing, romantic and rhythmic, invoking soaring birds and rippling streams. With musician-friends that have been with him for years, Kenny G experienced live is an emotionally satisfying experience. Some would argue it's like sneaking into the kitchen for a late night snack of chocolate cake: it may be "wrong" but it feels so "right"!

Kenny G
In doing some background research on Kenny G (the "G" stands for Gorelick, his real last name), many detractors don't consider his music sophisticated, but simply commercial. But last night, what I saw was an amalgam of styles and cultural influences with solos taken by each of the supporting musicians that showed the chops these guys have and put to rest any qualms I might have had going in about Kenny G being "pedestrian".

The opening started with the band doing a nice rendition of "Going Home" with Kenny G joining in from the back of the auditorium walking down the aisles, standing on the side of the stage level tower box seats, then showing off his note-sustaining breathing technique by holding one note for several minutes while he made his final way to the stage detouring across rows through the crowd while pointing and waving with a free hand. Moving through "Silhouette" with a tight polish from playing hundreds of gigs together, the band dove into the very popular song "Havana" during which percussionist Ron Johnson broke into an extended solo percussion jam that was a master class of Latin percussive techniques.

Ron Johnson, Kenny G Band
Completely surrounded by a dizzying array of chimes, multiple conga drums, timbales, cymbals, cowbells, blocks, whistles, gongs, and devices that generated sounds of bugs and birds, this was an explosive segment that was stunning and full of excitement and flair. As the band came back in, Ron got up to the front of the stage and led a "call and response" percussion jam with the audience clapping back rhythms generated by Ron on undoubtedly the best tambourine work I've ever seen. Not to be confused with the merely "tapping in time" style of tambourines you may think of from your elementary school days, this was a physical gyrating syncopated acrobatic attack that got everyone totally engaged and enthusiastic earning him a big round of applause. Who knew a tambourine could be a weapon of mass destruction?

Moving through other material like "G-Bot" and "Forever In Love" got the crowd back into easy-going jazziness and romance people like about Kenny G. Taking a break from playing for a minute, Kenny riffed with the crowd a little commenting on everything from hand warmers in his pockets, golfing (he has a plus- handicap) to his hair ("maybe I should cut it? but my career would go down the toilet like Michael Bolton’s!") (And who said he doesn't have a sense of humor?!?). They played a final collection of material before the set break and intermission with extracts from his last CD "Rhythm and Romance" with a slightly up-tempo version of the title track, then "Tango", "Besame Mucho" - with a beautiful interlude by keyboardist and long-time friend Robert Damper - and "Sax-O-Loco", voted best smooth-jazz song of 2008.

After a couple songs into their second set, they announced the winner of one of the "Kenny G" line of saxophones they gave away from a drawing of audience members who had earlier purchased CDs and merchandise. While waiting for the couple seated high in the balcony to get down to the stage for the presentation, the band played "White Christmas" from the Miracles Christmas album. With the winning couple Dee and Saul Macias onstage, Kenny serenaded them using the same soprano sax they had won before presenting it to the grateful couple. Speaking with the couple afterwards Saul confided he was "still shaking" he was so excited and Dee - it was clear - who had been moved to tears onstage was still glowing.

Louis Armstrong's classic "What A Wonderful World" came next with video work juxtaposing Kenny on stage blended with Louis Armstrong on screen in a nice rendition of what has become a favorite of Kenny G fans everywhere. It has to be said that this piece has garnered Kenny G the most derision from the serious jazz musician community, but I thought it was tasteful and respectful.

Not to let everybody get too mushy, the band slammed into a punchy raucous version of Average White Band's "Pick Up The Pieces" with an outrageous lightshow bathing the audience in blazing lights timed with the music.

Vail Johnson
Bassist Vail Johnson got a chance to stretch out his chops on a collage of material starting with the Beatles "Come Together" from Vail's own album (Sony/ATV, January 2009) of the same name. Now, when I say "stretch out", I mean Vail played the bass in an exhibition of punchy funky syncopated slap bass seeming to simultaneously play his own rhythm, lead, and percussion lines on his instrument in triplets, chords, strums, plucks, 32nd note runs, through what must have been a veritable "black page" of sheet music that was nothing short of amazing. With the band joining back in minus Mr. G into a punchy bass driven version of Bill Withers "Ain't No Sunshine" the crowd was stimulated into near hysteria!

Kenny G reappeared up in the balcony winding his way through the audience with various band breaks while Kenny made his way down a level into the main auditorium for more personal one-on-one serenading of audience members, leading into the big finale onstage with a standing ovation. Coming back onstage for "Cadenza" and one of his first major commercial hits "Songbird", Kenny and band closed out the night leaving everyone on their feet from this totally satisfying and entertaining show.

I just realized I didn't mention other hot solos by guitarist John Raymond and drummer Daniel Bejarano. The amazing talent these guys have individually and collectively help drive the band with a greater depth and breadth than many touring bands today, and make the live version of Kenny G even more enjoyable than recorded versions. Kudos also to lighting director Bruce (Higgy) Higinbotham and video director George Yancy who's tasteful direction made this a "big show" while seamlessly underscoring the overall production and popular music sensation that is Kenny G.

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