Alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett puts Motor City in his sound

Boston Globe, April 6, 2012

When speaking about jazz, it is established custom to identify a musician’s city of origin, even if he or she left it long ago. This recalls the time when culturally specific scenes thrived in different cities, with distinct idioms and influences, exporting players in this mold onto the national stage.

Today origins matter less; while some retain strong hometown ties (e.g., the Marsalis brothers, Terence Blanchard, or Nicholas Payton with New Orleans), the rise of jazz education has ushered in players from all manner of origins who train at schools like the Berklee College of Music rather than apprentice in hometown bands that pass down the local legacy.

The alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett was 18 when he left Detroit back in 1978, and he has made his base in New York ever since. Detroit is one of music’s great hubs — Yusef Lateef, Tommy Flanagan, Donald Byrd, Elvin Jones are just a few among the pantheon who came up there — but if anything, Garrett has spent his prolific career blurring the trace.

In 19 albums as a leader, Garrett has played acoustic and electric settings, from demanding post-bop to a softer, almost fusion style, and has explored Chinese, Japanese, African, and Caribbean sounds along the way. With a generous, enthusiastic playing style that makes him a concert favorite, he has become a quintessential jazz musician who will take on any challenge, and make the result sound good.

The closest Garrett has had to a Detroit homecoming is his new record, “Seeds From the Underground,” out next week and which he will be sampling with his quintet in a two-night stand at Regattabar this weekend. References to his Motor City roots lace the disc as Garrett pays homage to influential figures such as his father (on “Boogety Boogety”) and high school bandleader Bill Wiggins (“Wiggins”). The record is even on a Detroit label, Mack Avenue, with whom he also released his previous album in 2008, “Sketches of MD” (in honor of Miles Davis, in whose electric band Garrett played for five years).

Perhaps the emotional centerpiece of “Seeds” is a short, slow song simply titled “Detroit.” In lieu of heroic soloing Garrett here offers a melancholy ballad feel, amplified by the wordless vocals of Nedelka Prescod, to the rhythm not of drums, but of a looped sample of a record crackling on a turntable. The song is dedicated to another Detroit influence, trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, but it feels like an elegy to the city itself.

That’s an intended effect, Garrett says by phone from his home in New Jersey. “It’s a sad time in Detroit,” he says. “I go home and playing downtown is one thing, but go a mile away and it’s not the place that I remember.”

He’s referring to the city’s steep economic decline and chronic fiscal crisis, of course. “I have my family and friends and that’s where they choose to stay. But you start to realize it’s not the same place where you grew up.”

Detroit is the largest presence on “Seeds,” but it does not monopolize the disc. “Du-Wo-Mo” honors Duke Ellington, whose band — then led by Ellington’s son, Mercer — was Garrett’s first job in New York. “Laviso, I Bon?” is named for the guitarist Christian Laviso, from Guadeloupe, where Garrett has spent some time playing with local gwo-ka folk musicians. “Welcome Earth Song,” with its African percussion and its six-singer chorus, has a feeling of praise or incantation, and Garrett says his own playing there references Pharoah Sanders, another friend and mentor, and John Coltrane.

Invoking that legacy emphasizes the importance Garrett places on the spiritual strain that jazz inherits from its roots as a black American music, and that players such as Coltrane took out of the church and into the exploration of Eastern and other mystical traditions.

“The music I heard coming up was very spiritual music,” Garrett says. He draws on it in multiple ways, from composition to performance. For example, on the song “Haynes Here,” which honors drummer Roy Haynes, Garrett says he wanted the drums to deliver the “church shouting” parts that he would otherwise supply on the saxophone.

On stage, Garrett will solo expansively, twisting and turning his body with the instrument, allying virtuosic fire and melodic grounding. It can be breathtaking just to watch, and clearly requires great stamina. But this, too, is spiritual practice, he explains.

“Art Blakey used to say that when we hit the bandstand, we play because tomorrow’s not guaranteed,” Garrett says. “I’m not sure there’s a tomorrow, so I’m giving what I have at this point. I’m kind of a vessel, the Creator is blessing me, so I go out and do the best I can.”

With “Seeds,” Garrett is tracing the line from the ritual aspects he seeks to convey in performance back to the black church in Detroit — and to memories like being taken by Wiggins to watch a rehearsal by Aretha Franklin, one of Detroit’s greatest exponents of sacred and secular music.

That sort of experience, formative and profoundly local, makes Garrett after all these years still a creature of Detroit.

“It’s still home,” he says. “Whatever character I’ve built and become is rooted there.”

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