Kenny Garrett is taking jazz audiences on a journey that never ends

Kenny Garrett has quite the resumé.

From his beginnings with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and Miles Davis up until today, the Grammy Award winner and five-time nominee has been pushing boundaries throughout a career spanning more than 30 years. In that time, he has lent his gifts to folks like Art Blakey, Chick Corea, Marcus Miller, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw and Herbie Hancock. He’s since had a lucrative solo career; his most recent album was 2016’s Do Your Dance!

Garrett joined JAZZ.FM91 over the phone from his home in New Jersey to chat about his ever-evolving approach to making music and how his youth shaped him into the preeminent alto saxophonist of his generation.

Brad Barker: I wanted to go back to your days in Detroit, originally. I know you were playing at the highest level at a very young age. At 18 years old, you went off to play in Duke Ellington’s band. I was wondering what you were listening to leading up to those moments, before you became a professional musician. As a teenager, what were you listening to?

Kenny Garrett: At that point, I was listening to everything. I was listening to Charlie Parker, Joe Henderson, Stanley Turrentine, Hank Crawford, Grover Washington Jr., Cannonball Adderley. It was very diverse, eclectic. One (of my teachers) was doing bebop, the other was doing classical. And then of course you had the Motown sound. It was a lot of great music for me.

Was your dad influential in what you were listening to?

My stepfather played saxophone as a hobby. His collection was Stanley Turrentine, Sonny Stitt, Maceo Parker and those guys. So of course, I was listening to them. I just loved music. I had a thing I used to do for Christmas, I would hide all of my favourite little 45s, then when Christmas would come I would pull them out. I would play all this music and it would fill my soul up. And then I would go on for the next year listening to that. I was just always exposed to a lot of different kinds of music.

Of all the instruments out there, how did you end up putting your hands on a saxophone at that age?

My father played tenor saxophone. I used to love the smell of the case, so I would sit by him while he was practising. I didn’t want to play the saxophone, I just loved the smell of the case. So he bought me a toy saxophone for Christmas, and I started messing around with that, blowing it around the house. And then shortly after that he got me an alto — I don’t know where he got it, but it had a bullet hole in it. He taught me the G scale and sent me on my way.

I’ve got to ask the obligatory Miles Davis question. You were with him for five years, and I was just wondering how different or not you were as a musician and a person after that experience came to an end.

I’m sure I changed in some ways. I learned so much from Miles — I mean, to be with someone at that high of a level, and to hear them every night, you can’t do any better than that. I remember him telling Herbie one time, “He keeps playing my notes, and the wrong ones, too!” I didn’t know there were any wrong notes.

I remember when Do Your Dance! came to us here at JAZZ.FM91, I loved it and wanted to share it. I was wondering if that album was a statement about you and performance, wanting a more interactive experience with the audience, wanting them to have more freedom and maybe get outside of what people expect at a jazz show. Is that where that spirit and energy came from?

We have a show where we like to take people on a journey. At some point, we end with a certain tune. When you’re travelling with a band, you start to hear songs that you think will be part of that. And so Do Your Dance! was really more of that. Back in the day, people danced to jazz. So I was trying to find a way to bring some of that back by having some bossa nova or some straight-ahead funk. We have a tune called Wheatgrass Shot (Straight to the Head) that was hip hop, rock ‘n’ roll and jazz all in there. All those different elements, I was trying to put them on the same record. It was to add more variety to the set. The journey was a beautiful journey, but that added more to it. Every time I do a record I’m thinking about more of a live performance.

When you’re talking about going through a journey, how set is your set list? How do you approach that journey on a night-to-night basis?

We just get to the bandstand and I just start playing. That’s how it starts. It’s good that way because it keeps the band on their toes and keeps me on my toes. We’ll start playing and then we’ll just go some place else. The other night I was playing a slow blues, and everyone was shocked. But that’s what I was feeling. It’s never the same. It’s a continuation. Wherever we left off, we continue, and we keep that journey going.

This interview has been edited and condensed.