Culture

“Listening to Kenny G” Is an Ironic Masterpiece

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Unlike revenge, irony is best served warm, and the authentic warmth of the director Penny Lane’s documentary “Listening to Kenny G” (streaming on HBO Max) makes its ironies all the more revelatory. In the guise of the banal fan-service genre of the pop-musician portrait, Lane delivers something grand and sly: a cinematic work of music criticism, a far-reaching speculation on the philosophy of taste and the sociology of aesthetics. Her film’s ironies start with the title, because many of the movie’s viewers, like many of its interview subjects from the world of music, would rather not listen to Kenny G’s music at all—and their aversion is the mainspring of the film. Lane’s deft and gentle portraiture is dedicated to the profound proposition that such aversion can be explained, even justified, by the very portrait of the artist that emerges. “Listening to Kenny G” subtly and surely teases out the mighty and overarching idea of the inseparability of the artist and the art, the notion of art as the embodiment of the artist’s personality—for better or for worse.

As Lane notes in the film, the saxophonist and composer known as Kenny G is the best-selling instrumental artist ever. He’s identified with a single kind of music, smooth jazz; what’s more, that term was coined expressly to describe his music. (The story’s in the film.) In the mid-nineteen-eighties, Kenny G’s music rose to nearly instant popularity and quickly became a mainstay of shopping malls, dentists’ waiting rooms, and offices, as well as radio stations; whether or not one wanted to listen to his recordings, they were seemingly impossible to avoid hearing. In “Listening to Kenny G,” Lane tells the story of his rise from obscurity to fame to ubiquity, and she does so with a virtual symphony of voices. She interviews music writers and scholars (both detractors and defenders of Kenny G’s music) and members of his adoring public.

But, above all, Lane listens to Kenny G himself, in person, at great length, and his trenchant and granular discussion of his music’s sound and his thoughts and activities when creating it is the heart of the movie. He’s an enthusiastic and generous interview subject and host to the filmmaker and her crew, in his home and his studio, as he speaks, and speaks and speaks—for reasons that connect fascinatingly with his music—and he turns the movie into a feast of quotes and a treasure chest of moments. By listening attentively to Kenny G, Lane delivers, in a buoyant, amiable way, a ferocious denunciation, one in which she herself doesn’t voice a negative word—because he does most of the inadvertent, unconscious damning.

Kenneth Gorelick, born in Seattle, in 1956, grew up there, in a middle-class Jewish family, and, in high school, was recognized as a saxophone virtuoso. His school band had a resident composer, James Gardiner, who, in an interview with Lane, describes the young Kenny as an extraordinary sight reader. Chosen to deliver a brief solo in a 1974 concert at the Seattle Center Opera House with Gardiner’s professional ensemble, Kenny—instead of improvising a brief cadenza, as Gardiner had intended—held a single note for ten minutes, with a technique known as circular breathing (in effect, breathing in through the nose while blowing the sax), and got a standing ovation. According to Gardiner, “That was the moment little Kenny Gorelick became the G-Man.”

After college, Gorelick joined the Jeff Lorber Fusion, a Portland-based band that recorded for Arista Records. He was noticed by the label’s founder and C.E.O., Clive Davis, who eventually gave him a solo contract. (That’s when he took the stage name Kenny G.) But, to get around pop radio’s resistance to instrumentals, Davis paired Kenny G with singers, to the saxophonist’s dismay. In 1986, Kenny G was booked on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” to play his R.-&-B.-styled single “What Does It Take (to Win Your Love)” (a cover of a 1969 record by Junior Walker & the All Stars). In a display of chutzpah akin to that of his 1974 Opera House solo, he instead played his own composition “Songbird,” a mellow, melodic instrumental. In doing so, he earned the ire of Carson’s producers but gained a runaway hit record (abetted by Davis’s pressure on radio stations to play it, as Davis himself tells Lane) and became a major celebrity with a plethora of prominent TV appearances, followed by a series of albums that sold millions of copies.

The radio host Pat Prescott explains that office workers liked Kenny G’s music as pleasant, bouncy, inoffensive ambience. With its solo sax, it resembled jazz, but, as the radio executive Allen Kepler says, people who didn’t like jazz nonetheless liked Kenny G’s recordings, and, in a focus group where his records were played, one woman, trying to describe his style, called it “smooth jazz,” and the term caught on (and was quickly adopted by a Chicago station, the first of many to use it); as Kenny G himself says, “They decided to call it ‘smooth jazz’ because if they called it jazz it was gonna turn people away.” Yet Kenny G himself turned away from jazz, as he admits in a 1993 clip from a Charlie Rose interview that Lane includes. Asked by Rose whether he’s influenced by the great jazz saxophonists, Kenny G says, of his music, “It’s real jazz sound, but it’s the technique of it. The John Coltrane and the Charlie Parker, I mean, their technique was phenomenal. . . . but that music was never heartfelt for me, so, when I went out and gigged, it wasn’t anything that I wanted to emulate.” What this says of Kenny G’s musical heart is damning enough; it also points to the overriding, even counterproductive importance for him of technique.

Returning, for Lane’s camera, to his high school in Seattle, Kenny G is asked by the principal to sign the wall of fame, and he writes, “Go For What You Love and Practice, Practice, Practice.” Even now, he practices three hours a day; when he went to college, he avoided taking music theory, preferring to use the time for practicing. To this day, he doesn’t know harmony but claims to have a “sixth sense of melody” and employs an assistant to pitch him chords to go with his melodies until he finds one that he likes. What emerges from such remarks in the course of the film isn’t any formal problem with his concentration on melody or technique but, rather, a suggestion that he is incurious about music itself. Lane includes a clip of a younger Kenny G saying that he hardly listens to music, follows news, or knows “what’s happening.” For that matter, Lane asks him what he loves about music, and his cheerful response comes as a sort of smack in the face to people, whether musicians or mere listeners, who are passionate about it: “I don’t know if I love music that much. . . . I guess, for me, when I listen to music, I think about the musicians and I just think about what it takes to make that music and how much they had to practice.”

In talking with Lane, Kenny G blithely displays an absurd, nearly comedic contempt for art—because he likes “old jazz standards,” he resolves to do an album for which he’s composing “new standards”; deciding that he wants to play classical music, he says, “Like new standards, I’m gonna have to write new classical music.” Instead of performing with leading musicians of the time, he does a duet with a video clip of the late Louis Armstrong on “What a Wonderful World” and discloses, in the movie, his plan to do a similar “virtual duet” with the late saxophonist Stan Getz, but with a further twist—instead of merely playing along with a recording by Getz, he’ll have the sound engineer “adjust” Getz’s playing to fit in with his own song. In the studio, Kenny G displays his own relentless adjustments of his own playing; he plays his soprano sax, and then has the recording engineer demonstrate the way it will sound on the record, after multiple “reverbs” are added to it—and this, the saxophonist says, is “what it really sounds like.” And, he adds, “When I give it my stamp of approval, I sit back and go, ‘That’s fuckin’ beautiful.’ I just say it.”

Kenny G pursues something like perfection both in and out of music, and boasts of it to Lane. He practices golf, aviation, cooking, investing, doing laundry, and even parenting with the same devotion and conspicuous labor, the same sense of satisfaction in feeling that he’s “really good” at them. He has two sons, and says that, when they were young, he wondered, “How am I going to become the best father the world has ever seen? I’m going to start studying it.” He’s happy with the way they “turned out”—and adds, “Both of them grew up watching their father, who’s already super famous, every day, practicing, practicing.” He has a relentless drive to be “the best” at whatever he does; he even eagerly expresses to Lane his desire to be “the best interview” she’s ever had, and adds that he’d willingly sit twelve hours straight with her if that’s what it takes.

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