Seattleite Spotlight: Instrumental Icon Kenny G

The jazz sensation returns to his hometown for a concert series later this month.

For all intents and purposes, Kenneth Gorelick enjoyed a typical Seattle childhood. He grew up in the Seward Park neighborhood, attended Franklin High School and eventually enrolled at the University of Washington. At age 10, he began playing the alto saxophone – and the rest, as they say, is music history. Kenny G (as Gorelick is today known to millions of worldwide fans) is one of the top-selling artists of all time, and his name has become synonymous with the genre of contemporary jazz. The homegrown superstar recently took some time out of his tour schedule to discuss musical influences, golfing with Alice Cooper (yes, that Alice Cooper) and why he loves playing for Seattle fans.

What’s the biggest misconception people have about Kenny G?

When people come to one of our concerts, they’re probably expecting it to be much more mellow. With my band and the way we play live, we have a lot of musicianship and we play plenty of up-tempo music. It’s probably much more exciting and livelier than people would expect from one of my concerts.

What are some of your favorite memories of growing up in Seward Park?

Not to sound like my grandfather, but back in my day, we’d walk down to Lake Washington the night before the hydroplane races. No parents, just kids. I was 8, my brother was 13, and we would walk down there with our sleeping bags and spend the night on the shore of Lake Washington. There was nothing to keep us from doing that. I remember when they put a chain-link fence around the lake, so people had to pay to attend the races. We were just shocked. But I loved growing up in Seattle, and never minded the rain.

Who are some of the musicians you enjoyed listening to as a kid?

As a kid, I didn’t listen to any saxophone players. I was in the public school system, taking lessons from the guy that came around every week to teach us a lot of different instruments. I was just looking at the instrument as something to learn and play in the school band. I didn’t listen to a single professional sax player until I was in high school, and then I started listening to Grover Washington Jr., Tower of Power – the more soulful, funky saxophone players. Franklin is an inner-city school, and R&B music was the music I grew up listening to. And once I got into college, I started listening to the jazz greats like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.

Who was your first saxophone teacher, and how did their tutelage influence your musical style?

No teacher ever had influence on my musical style. I just listened to records of the players I liked, and just practiced and developed a style of my own. I did have a year of lessons with a teacher in downtown Seattle named Johnny Jensen. I worked on clarinet and sax with him. Nothing that changed my style, but he was a really good teacher and I spent a lot of time with him.

How many musical instruments have you mastered over the years?

All of the woodwinds – sax, clarinet, flute, oboe – and that’s pretty much it. I’m OK on the piano. Nobody ever thinks they’re master of an instrument, but obviously I’m better on the sax than I am on the flute.

Are there any other instruments you’d like to learn to play?

Well, you always want to get better. I would love to become a great pianist. That would be really fun, but there’s no time. I already know what it takes to become really good on an instrument, and I’m always giving that time to my saxophone. And that’s how I like to devote my time.

At the age of 17, you landed a sideman gig with Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra. What did you take away from working with this legendary artist?

When I was 17, my high school band director knew a guy in the Seattle Symphony. Barry White was coming to town and he needed a bunch of symphony players to complete his orchestra, and he also needed a sax soloist. They determined I was good enough to do it, and I got the gig. What I took away from it was that I was playing with all these professional musicians and I was holding my own. I got a couple of standing ovations, and gained a lot of confidence. Barry White was huge, and a lot of people were probably surprised to see a little white guy stand up and play solos with him. The experience taught me that I was good enough, and that I really enjoyed being a musician.

As a young adult, you continued to play professionally while earning an accounting degree from UW. Did you ever consider giving up your music career to pursue the field you studied in college?

Not really. I took the CPA test and did not pass, so maybe that was a blessing in disguise. But while I was studying at UW, I played in the school jazz band. The leader of the jazz band, Roy Cummings, probably had the most influence on me. He was the contractor for a lot of shows in Seattle. He singled me out and had me play lots of professional shows. I played with Sammy Davis Jr., the Ringling Bros. Circus, the Ice Capades, Peggy Lee, Liberace – for all the shows that came through Seattle and needed professionals, I was one of the guys that got the call.

Prior to becoming a solo artist, you were a member of the Jeff Lorber Fusion. How did working with Lorber – a contemporary jazz pioneer in his own right – prepare you for the solo career that lay ahead?

It was crucial. I was with Jeff Lorber for five years, and he taught me a lot about music. As a musician, I learned a lot from watching him play. He had a deal with Arista Records, and Clive Davis would come watch us play. I guess I stuck out enough, and I got offered my own record deal. Jeff produced my first record, and so he gave me my start and I owe a lot to him.

In 1982, you released your self-titled solo debut. What was going through your mind during the recording of your first album?

Just trying to play well. All of a sudden, I was the leader playing melodies and taking charge of the songs. So I was just getting a feel for what it was like to play in the studio.

Ten years – and four studio albums – later, you released Breathless. The record was eventually certified 12x Platinum (making it the best-selling instrumental album of all time), and one of its tracks, ‘Forever in Love’, earned you a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Composition. Looking back after two decades, why do you think this particular record struck a chord with so many people?

Well, there were a lot of factors that made that record really popular. First of all, the music had to be there. The intangible emotional connection that people made to the songs I wrote and played and the way the album was recorded and produced is something that is very hard to quantify, but I think we have to acknowledge that as the first reason the record was so popular. It was my first time working in a digital studio, so I was able to do things like punching in and out of tracks if I didn’t like a couple notes. I was in total control of that album, and it took me two years to record because I was so meticulous about each note. I think a lot of that hard work was rewarded.

The second part was that, at that particular time, smooth jazz had not been invented. And the sound that I had basically became the theme for these new ‘smooth jazz’ radio stations that were popping up all over the country. Then, in 1992, Bill Clinton was a very popular figure, and he said I was his favorite musician. This created a lot of buzz about me, and my music. Then you have Clive Davis really backing me up and using his whole Arista Records team to push my music. So there was a lot of timing, as well.

For your most recent album, Namaste India (2012), you teamed up with Rahul Sharma, a world-renowned santoor player. What led to this project?

I met [Rahul Sharma] when I was in India a couple years ago playing a gig. He came up to me in the lobby of a hotel, and said, ‘I play this instrument and we should play some music together’. He seemed like a super nice guy, so I told him to email me some samples. I didn’t know what to expect, but he was really good and I liked his style, so we worked on a project via email. We sent music back and forth, from India to Los Angeles, and about a year later we came up with a great album. It was challenge fitting my saxophone into his musical style, but I felt like it was good for me to stretch out a bit.

Do you have any upcoming projects that will incorporate instruments you haven’t utilized before, like the santoor?

I don’t have anything specific, but I’m open to anything that comes my way and seems to make sense.

You’ve also released six holiday-themed albums throughout your career (beginning with Miracles in 1994). What inspires you about music associated with Christmas, Hanukkah and other seasonal festivities?

When we first made the Miracles album, it was just an experiment. There hadn’t been much success for Christmas albums. In fact, they weren’t selling like they are now. Miracles was the one that broke all the records. I had just come off my Breathless success, and a lot of people were discovering my music. So when I put out a record where I played some of the most familiar melodies ever, I think the timing was just perfect.

You’ve played alongside some of pop music’s most revered vocalists. When you collaborate with another artist, what do you learn about that person?

It depends on how involved they are. I did a duet with Frank Sinatra, but I didn’t meet him. I just got the music sent to me, recorded it in my studio and sent it back, and then the CD came out. So I don’t
know anything about him. Same with Aretha Franklin. I got to know Celine Dion a little bit. She’s very motivated, and she really cares about the way she records. Smokey Robinson was in the studio every step of the way, encouraging me. Michael Bolton and I recorded together, and then we ended up going on tour for a few years. Either you get to know them, or you don’t.

Name some of the artists with whom you’d like to record a duet, but haven’t yet done so.

I’d love to do a duet with Paul McCartney, Elton John, Sting, Beyoncé – any of those would be fun. But I’d also like to duet with Lang Lang, Yo Yo Ma, or other instrumentalists. That would also be amazing. I’m open to it if the music is right and the vibe is good.

In October 2011, you joined Foster the People onstage during an episode of Saturday Night Live. What’s it like to play on SNL?

Oh, it’s so fun! I had a great time, and I was flattered that a young band wanted me to play with them on their SNL debut. It was great exposure, playing with a hip band. Plus, my dressing room was right
next to Hugh Jackman’s so I got to hang out with him for awhile – super funny, super nice guy. All of the people on the cast would say hi, and we hung out, laughed and had a great time. It’s a great scene. They are real artists who work hard at what they do. I know it looks easy, but they are working hard all day re-writing, working things out. I loved being around that vibe, and I look forward to the next time.

Throughout your career, your hairstyle has become something of a trademark. When did you first decide to grow it out?

My hair has always been curly. It was passed down from my grandmother. I don’t really do anything to it. Hair like mine looks good either short or really long; in between is just wild and it goes
everywhere. I kept it short until I was 15 or 16, and then I just let it grow. I went through a really ugly, in-between stage, and then it started to look better. If I were to cut my hair, it would take four years to grow back. Plus, everybody seems to like it. But I don’t pay too much attention to it.

Music isn’t your only passion – for instance, you’ve been an avid golfer since your high school days and spent time on the links with the likes of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Do you have plans to compete in any upcoming tournaments?

I’ll be at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in February. I’ll be one of 120 amateurs that get paired up with pros. It’s super fun. I’ve been paired with Phil Mickelson, and we came in first during
the 2001 tournament. Last year I was paired with Aaron Bradley. It’s great to play golf with those guys. But I’ve also enjoyed playing golf with people like George Lopez and Ray Romano. Craig T. Nelson is someone I play golf with often. You know, I’m always up for a good golf tournament but it’s also time-consuming. I make time for the AT&T tournament every year, but I don’t have anything else on the books.

Is it true that you’re golf buddies with Alice Cooper – and if so, any chance of a future duet?

It’s true! We talked about recording a duet once, where he would play a wild, heavy metal thing and I could play a solo in there. But there’s a better chance we’ll be seen together on the golf course. He’s a super nice guy, by the way – unbelievably nice, so funny, and such a positive person. I really enjoy my time around him.

Later this month, you’re scheduled to play four nights at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley in Seattle. What do you enjoy most about playing for the hometown crowd?

I love Jazz Alley. It’s a great club. The sound is wonderful, and it’s just a comfortable place. And I love playing in Seattle, my hometown. I spend a lot of time at the market, and I walk around downtown. And I get to see all my friends from high school, and my dad, sister and cousins. I’m told that all the members of the Franklin High School jazz band from when I was there are supposed to come to the Saturday show. I think we have 30 or 35 people coming down. So if anybody who went to Franklin is reading this, and they want to see some of the homeboys, we’ll all be there on Saturday.

What can Seattleites expect from your upcoming sets?

We put on a great show. The guys in my band are amazing, and everyone plays fantastic solos. It’s not just me playing my sax. I’ll be signing away CDs. I also have my own brand of saxophones, and if people buy a sax from me at my show, I give the proceeds to the servers. Bottom line, the shows are going to be fantastic and filled with great musicianship.

What are some of the local haunts you make sure to visit when you return to the Puget Sound?

I definitely have my favorites. I always go to Wild Ginger. The food’sgreat, the owner is a great guy and I love the atmosphere there. I also love the Italian restaurant, Barolo. Wonderful food, those guys are amazing. There’s Nishino in Madison Park, great Japanese food. I also like walking by the waterfront. I remember playing the club at Pier 70 when I was in college. And Pike Place Market, of course. I go to the market everyday I’m downtown. I like to grab food and eat as I’m walking around. Those cinnamon rolls they have there are amazing. I like to watch them throw the fish, and if they recognize me they’ll ask me to come back and catch a salmon, which is awfully fun.

Kenny G and his crew are scheduled to play eight shows (two per night) at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley from Thursday, Jan. 24 to Sunday, Jan. 27. Tickets ($55) are currently available online.