In 1988, Miles Davis needed an alto sax player for his small-ensemble Live Around the World sessions. He chose a 27-year-old from Detroit named Kenny Garrett.
Garrett is 45 now, but he's still learning from the greats and drawing on as many musical influences as he can -- which more than qualifies him to deliver a master class and concert this weekend at Whitworth College.
The origin of the first tune Garrett will play on Saturday night -- the crowd-pleasing "Sing a Song of Song" from his '97 album, Songbook -- reveals some debts and resemblances. "That particular tune was written in about five minutes," says Garrett with the self-disparaging attitude of many artists toward their hits. "Woody Shaw [the trumpeter who died in '89] was talking about a Chinese scale. So I played a chord, and that just moved the melody right along."
Garrett released a John Coltrane tribute album, Pursuance, in '96, and the concluding wails on "Sing a Song" reveal Trane's influence. "Coltrane is a force," says Garrett, "so, yeah, he's both directly and indirectly in that. Though the first time I heard him, I had no idea how he got so much into one note.
"I love to play in his spirit. We come from the same place. And what I mean by that is, even though he was much older, we were both traveling along the same spiritual, seeking path.
"Pharaoh Sanders [who played sax alongside Trane on several free-jazz dates 40 years ago] would always say to me when we worked together, 'You remind me of Coltrane.'"
Just as Coltrane always brought along his tenor or soprano, Garrett is always practicing on his alto: "If it's not sax, it's piano," he says. "If it's not piano, it's something else."
Garrett is open to all kinds of influences -- which makes him a good learner and teacher. "I can be watching a movie and think, 'What is that chord?' And I play that chord on the piano, and it'll take me to different places," he says.
Garrett's musical influences start with his 15-year-old daughter. "I always want to know what she's listening to," he laughs. He's actively seeking out the music of China, of Guadeloupe. Just in the last year, his quartet has toured China, Brazil, Poland and Iceland. Truly eclectic, Garrett has written musical tributes to Tiger Woods and to Marion Jones; he has worked with symphony orchestras, with Sting, Peter Gabriel and Bruce Springsteen.
After intermission on Saturday night, Garrett will play seven tunes, including Whitworth jazz director Dan Keberle's arrangements for big band of "Sing a Song" and two other Garrett compositions: "Doc Tone's Short Speech" and "Chief Blackwater" from Standard of Language (2003) -- both of them tributes to Kenny Kirkland, who played piano with Garrett and who died seven years ago at age 43.
Garrett has known sadness, but he's also insistent that jazz traditions carry on -- and so it is that the first half of Saturday night's program will feature the 21 students in the Whitworth Jazz Ensemble playing a half-dozen charts, including Count Basie's "Boomerang" and "Jumpin' at the Woodside," along with Keberle's arrangement of "August Day Song" by Bebel Gilberto, the daughter of bossa nova innovator Joao Gilberto.
"G-Force" is all for eclectic influences like that. "Rather than simply say, 'I play jazz,'" Garrett comments, "I say, 'I play music.'"
Kenny Garrett will discuss jazz on Friday, Nov. 4, at 5:15 pm at Whitworth's Music Bldg. Recital Hall, 300 W. Hawthorne Rd. Free. Garrett plays in concert with the Whitworth College Jazz Ensemble on Saturday, Nov. 5, at 8 pm in Cowles Auditorium. Tickets: $10. Call 777-3280.