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Kenny Garrett has nothing to prove. In his early days, he played alto saxophone with Miles Davis and in subsequent years has served as a sideman for such jazz luminaries as Art Blakey and Herbie Hancock. Since the very beginning of his career, Garrett has never had to go out of his way to demonstrate his playing ability. Yet that is precisely the impression that he gave at Sculler’s Jazz Club as he took the stage with his quartet last Thursday.
Launching pell-mell into an original composition, drummer Chris Dave provided an overbearing framework to “Two Down & One Across” while Garrett positively screamed into his horn. Dave repeatedly called for the piano monitor of Vernell Brown to be turned up, instead of adjusting the level of his own playing. Something was amiss. Instead of easing his audience into his jazz-pop aesthetic, Garrett’s opening was an indigestible attack. In an evening centered around compositions from Garrett’s latest album Happy People, it was hit or miss whether the group would hit its stride or not.
The misses, marring the first set’s first half, were as mystifying as they were distressing. Garret’s quartet suffered from amateurish balance problems as Dave’s percussion drowned out Brown and bassist Vincente Archer. This lack of tonal center vaulted the frontman into a series of frenzied solos. One of Garrett’s new tunes, as yet untitled, started with a longing, mysterious texture and then built in intensity as layers of complexity mounted. Then Garrett took his solo and turned the piece into a chaotic, screaming mess that had absolutely nothing to with the previous thematic statement. “Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues,” a groove that is anything but a blues, had Garrett bizarrely soloing in frenzied pentatonic scales over mellow funk.
Garrett hit closer to the mark when he put down his alto and picked up a soprano sax, as he did on “Asian Medley,” a three song compilation of Japanese and Korean folk tunes. Dave and Archer left the stage, leaving Brown’s lush piano to fill in the soundscape behind Garrett’s warm tone. Each song of the medley was elegant in its simplicity and beautiful in its construction. Moreover, Garrett infused his interpretation with pathos so breathtaking it was hard to reconcile his performace with the concert’s opening. His cadenza was particularly stunning, as he deftly blended themes from all three tunes. To round out the set, the full quartet returned and rolled into “Happy People,” a funk-laced ditty featuring a catchy bridge and an irresistible groove. As if making up for his earlier alienation, Garrett welcomed his audience back to his music by exhorting them to sing along. This was what jazz is supposed to be about—interplay with the audience, communication between band members and spontaneous creativity. Garrett was at his absolute best when he stayed within—but was not constrained by—the structure of his chord changes, but he did that all too infrequently to redeem the remainder of the show.
The second set wasn’t nearly as offensive as moments of the first, but there existed among the quartet an underlying and intangible lack of connection. Dave seemed to have lost his chops, Garrett appeared to have spent every creative idea in the first set and as ever, Brown was inaudible under the weight of everyone else. It seems a shame to bury a talented band under such awkward pretensions.
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