KENNY GARRETT / “African Exchange Student”


We, the people of color, have lost our focus.
Try to read through the deception and believe in yourselves – the Children of God – that there’s hope! Stop to think! Stop killing each other as if our lives don’t mean anything. You are destroying our race.
Rise above all things and the cycles of the slave mentality generations and start making strides…
—Kenny Garrett
Most people say it: when I get established I’m going to…. Most people don’t do it. Kenny Garrett is not most people.
kenny garrett 01.jpg  
When he blazed onto the international jazz scene he was the saxophone foil for Miles Davis. Kenny vowed jazz was his future, even as he labored in the pop-fusion vineyards of nu-bop godhead Miles Davis. A funny thing happened on the way to commercial success: Garrett kept his word. He has produced a body of uncompromising jazz recordings.

Which is not to say Kenny has not done commercially-oriented projects. He has. Portions of African Exchange Student are a prime example. But the fact is, the arc of his recording career has long since left commercialism behind. Garrett is the exact opposite of many jazz artists who start off hard and over the course of a decade or so, end up going for popularity; or, as one jazz veteran was heard to say to another stalwart: "I’ve made music [before], now I’m going to make me some money!"

I stress this aspect of Garrett’s career because escaping the shackles of the backbeat is no easy task if one wants to make a career of music in today’s current atmosphere where, at least as far as the major record companies are concerned, jazz is nothing but another word for instrumental pop music. It better either be something to dance to or some pretty making-out music, which is that slave mentality Kenny referenced; a slave to the dollar.
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Significantly, Garrett is not rebelling for the sake of rebelling. He is actually into hip music, music for souls who want to make strides, who want to change their lives, challenge the powers that be, create a better and more beautiful world.

On top of the nobility of his intentions, Kenny Garrett also has masterful skill in terms of his execution.

The man has produced marvelous music. Of all the current crop of saxophonists, I gravitate toward Garrett. His tone is warm, hugely happy and optimistic even when he is full out screaming. Plus, he is adventurous. Not satisfied with the easy. Always stretching off into the great beyond. Encouraging us to, well, to make strides and step off towards tomorrow.

And his chosen horn is the alto saxophone. Strange. Because post-Sixties, most cats were captivated by Trane and ran that tenor thing. Kenny was on that train, but he adopted Trane’s first horn, the alto, rather than Trane’s most famous horn, the tenor. Garrett’s admiration of Trane, perhaps, did lead to Kenny doubling on the soprano saxophone. (Not that many alto saxophonist do. The soprano is in a different key, different fingering and stuff. Whereas for tenor players, being in the same key, the soprano is a natural extension).

I also like that Kenny is a composer and that his albums are albums with a purpose. There is a coherence to how Kenny selects songs and sidemen. A native of Detroit, the well known Motor City of jazz which has produced a plethora of jazz talent. Kenny Garrett is a potent, prime and beautiful example of modern jazz in an age when many think of jazz as on its last legs.
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Three examples for your listening enjoyment. The first is an extended solo on “Human Nature,” Kenny with Miles. Kenny does his blues thing. If Miles was JB, Kenny is Maceo blowing up a whirlwind. The second example is “African Exchange Student.” Jazzy and funky at the same time. The third example, “Dear Lord,” is from one of my favorite of Garrett’s recordings — Pursuance: The Music of John Coltrane, which features Pat Metheny on guitar, Rodney Whitaker on bass and Brian Blade on drums. This cut illustrates Kenny’s lyricism and reminds us that the alto saxophone’s lineage includes greats like Johnny Hodges, Charlie Parker and Cannnonball Adderley, all of whom were master balladers.

—Kalamu ya Salaam

          Delicate yet spiritual          

I'm not feeling the "Human Nature" thing. I don't know if it's the tinny, lightweight sound Miles adopted for his later work or if it's the subconscious negative feelings that I get for all things associated with Mr. Jesus Juice himself, but I'm just not hearing it. I do like the other two tracks. I don't own many albums by alto saxophonists—I have a couple of Wes Anderson CDs and a 10-CD Charlie Parker box set that I got as a gift; that's about it—so Kenny's sound took a little getting used to for me. Alto is not as pretty as soprano, but it's not as heavy as tenor. Initially, it sounds 'stuck in the middle' to me. But after a few listens, I started feeling the groove on "African Exchange Student." I particularly like the way Kenny starts off his solo by playing and repeating soulful phrases instead of going for the 'lyrical progression' thing that so many cats do. It's a hip piece. "Dear Lord" is the type of tune that I'm looking forward to adding to my 'Morning Jazz' mix. It's tunes like Bill Evans' "You Must Believe In Spring," Lonnie Liston's "Imani" and Sun Ra's "Journey To The Stars." Tunes that are delicate yet spiritual—the perfect way to start a weekend morning.

—Mtume ya Salaam


          Funny you should mention that           

So you let Miles' tinny sound prevent you from digging Kenny's soul-filled solo?

I thought it was the height of egoistic irony that Miles claimed "That wasn't nothing. I do that every night," when the audience was offering an ovation for Kenny, not for Miles. But then, in another way, Miles is right, he could give Kenny room to solo every night and Kenny without ever failing would always burn the house down!

kenny garrett 04.jpg 

Mtume, in your own insightful way you echo my distinctions between jazz solos and funk solos. I encourage you to check Kenny's "Human Nature" solo again because in the beginning Kenny does an amazing thing—well he does an equally amazing thing at the end but right now I'm focusing on the beginning—when Kenny slides up under Miles, Kenny starts off with his alto sounding like a soprano, sweet and with a lot of air in the tones, especially when he hits those low notes, and then gradually he roughs up the sound. We hear the evolution of the alto saxophone from the light lyricism of Johnny Hodges to the deep funk of Maceo with touches of Cannonball in the interim. As Kenny turns up the heat, the solo becomes a textbook in alto funk.

Also, it is significant that all of the "Morning Jazz" references you offer are jazz cats, which is consistent with the fact that "Dear Lord" is a Coltrane/jazz composition. Therein we hear the hard contrast between Kenny the funk player and Kenny the jazz player and it is immediately obvious even without an accompanying text to point it out.

Finally, I must note, with a twinkle in my eye and a sarcastic smile on my lips, that "tinny" sound you dislike about Miles was a Miles trademark and is undoubtedly one of the things that jazzheads dug about Miles. One person's hip is another person's shit... ain't life funny?

—Kalamu ya Salaam

This entry was posted on Saturday, April 15th, 2006 at 11:55 pm and is filed under Contemporary. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

3 Responses to “KENNY GARRETT / “African Exchange Student””

tayari kwa salaam Says:
April 18th, 2006 at 2:02 pm

“African Exchange Student” and “My Lord” were two of the many jazz tunes that carried me through my phd process. When I heard them, memories of those times floated back to me. Though when I hear “African Exchange Student” I think Kenny Garrett, breath of life let me know that “My Lord” is also Kenny Garrett.

What would our world be like without that undescribable, spirit-rich, soul-filled music called jazz?!

Qawi Says:
April 19th, 2006 at 4:32 pm

Thanks Kalamu and Mtume for another mix. I honestly am not a big fan of the saxaphone, but your article has intrigued me enough to stretch my musical mind a bit. Amen brother Kalamu for saying, "as far as the major record companies are concerned, jazz is nothing but another word for instrumental pop music. It better either be something to dance to or some pretty making-out music, which is that slave mentality Kenny referenced; a slave to the dollar."

It would be grand if musicians could be musicians, but brothers and sisters gotta eat…so their is the lure of commercialism. Don’t know if that is Kenny G’s (not Garrett) motive but…oh well.

Much like Mtume, I didn’t really care for Human Nature either. Not because of the song, I like MJ. However, from a Miles point of view, I put it up (down) there with his Time after Time cover of Cyndi Lauper, lacking the Jazz fusion flare that I got from TuTu, Bitches’ Brew, etc. But, thanks to you both, I can at least say that I heard this song once, LOL. Kenny Garrett does indeed do something at the end, quite remarkable I may add.

As modern day sax men go, I take it neither of you have respect for Joshua Redman or Greg Osby. 🙂


          Mtume says:           

I’ve tried and failed to enjoy Greg Osby’s music, but I like Joshua Redman a lot. A whole lot. One of these days, I’ll get around to posting some of his stuff.


         kalamu sez:          

I respect both Greg Osby and Joshua Redman. In fact when we did a feature on Coltrane’s "Africa," Joshua was one of the people whose work we cited and placed in the jukebox. The point of the Kenny Garrett posting was to talk about "funk" and "jazz." As interesting as Osby and Redman are as jazz musicians, neither of them is as tough a funk player as Kenny Garrett—and that’s not a put down, just a simple evaluation of the recorded evidence.

youngblood Says:
April 21st, 2006 at 12:37 pm

there are two major saxophone players in the world today – the other one is a modern day Pharaoh. Kenny Garrett’s voice dominates the alto saxophone world. the detroit native’s presence in the field of contemporary jazz is like a baobaob flourishing against a barren landscape. apart from Steve Coleman’s ceative concepts in modalism and angular, odd meter rhythms, the lush romanticism of Greg Osby’s compositions and tone, Kenny Garrett’s contemporary jazz sound is both accessible and compelling. African Exchange Student and all the rest of those studio recording – except perhaps Standard of Language which comes as close to a live set as any recent studio recording – does not even begin to give an impression of what goes down at a live Kenny Garrett set. Ask any alto player about Kenney Garrett – they will all tell you that Kenny Garrett is the truth. and if they don’t say that then they’re lying – point blank. don’t even bother to argue – just walk away. make no mistake, Kenny Garrett’s solo on Human Nature featured on Miles Live Around the World is a great moment in recorded jazz. check out the lyricim, check how he slowly developes the theme and variation, the way he builds, the ebb and flow, the give and take, tension and release. Check out how bro-mean heats you up with the foreplay, giving soulful references from Maceo and Grover, before going out on Trane tangents. this cat has chops out the hind parts. Kenny plays with Human Nature like it was an erector set – he builds like a maniacal architech and when he know he’s got you right where he wants you, game over.

this Human Nature solo is a deconstruction. but within deconstruction the process of dismantling gradually reveals the underlying structure. the step by step building of strength from the root. the underlying character, the intent and the underbelly is what deconstruction seeks to expose; the process of growth. this is the art of the builder, the artist. however the true artist builds upon the remembering and it is here – in the remembering that there is an implied resolve to be better because he now has knowledge of what was once hidden. there is a new perspective. though at times the complex display of strength through tragedy produces awe, inspiration can come from the humility of the realization of self – especially when placed in the conrtext of what and who came before. the artist’s (conscious) deconstruction of iconic structures is healthy as it places societal values in uncompromising and unbiased light. it is the source of freedon of expression and of being. Check out how Miles’ band responds to Kenny, the anticipation – they get down like new lovers doin it again like it’s the first time.

As a saxophone player it’s one thing to hit that altissimo register yet quite another thing to have power and articulate clearly in that high register and still manage to have the lyricism of a nightingale. that is musicianship of a high order. and another thing; if you think it’s easy to riff over a one or two chord vamp and maintain creativity and keep it interesting – not only for other musicians but also for the audience – and keep it as funky as Maceo, be as articulate as Dolphy, as powerful as Trane, as soulful as Cannon, I’m telling y’all, that shit ain’t easy. Kenny Garrett ain’t got no respect for the horn at all. If kenny was cheney, the alto would be bush. Kenny be ownin that thing like, what?

there are those who say that the sound of the alto sax in the lower register is that of the moan of waiting. as a deep ruddy hue, it’s warmth vibrates just below the surface of earthy darkness. it is a romantic, blue, anticipatory sound with swaying hips that sing with fat, swollen lips. it’s blood rushing to your stomach while hopes of heaven plummet. is it gettin hot. or is it just Human Nature.

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