Arguably one of the most successful yet polarizing instrumental musicians of all time is Kenneth Gorelick, better known as Kenny G. His style helped pioneer the smooth jazz genre that invaded '80s and '90s radio in homes, offices and elevators. He has sold more than 75 million records, his song "Going Home" is the unofficial anthem of China, and he’s found new life collaborating with modern superstars like Kanye West, The Weeknd and more.
In the early 2010s, I found myself enjoying the ironic, nostalgia-obsessed wave genres: Vaporwave, chillwave and music that was s p a c e d o u t l i k e t h i s. It interested me how often these genres looked to smooth jazz as their tongue-in-cheek starting point, and this source material slowly but surely became a guilty pleasure of mine. If smooth jazz had a mascot (or perhaps a meme) to help it translate to a younger generation, it was Kenny G.
While driving with my mom, I put on the song "Champagne" from his 1986, 5x Platinum album, Duotones. After squirming a bit she asked me to turn it off, but didn’t bat an eye as we finished out the drive to The Sex Pistols. Listening to Kenny G was officially punk in my eyes. In late 2017, I used this mindset to approach my own music, exploring syrupy smooth saxophone over punk and death metal themes on songs like "Adult Contemporary" and "Pleasure Money."
Recently, I (Weston Allen) was lucky enough to sit down for PAPER with the “K-Man” to discuss his life, the excellent documentary Listening To Kenny G by director Penny Lane and his most recent album New Standards, out now.
Weston Allen: Kenny G, how are you today?
Kenny G: I'm doing good. I've got a gig tonight in Evansville, Indiana.
Weston: I just want to let you know that I'm personally a big fan of yours and your legacy, and I really enjoyed the new documentary, Listening to Kenny G.
Kenny: Thanks, I really like it. I think it's a really unique look at a person's music, but mainly I see now I see that Penny really used me as the subject of her documentary, which is about music and how people can like it or not like it, and that whole conversation about why people are so attached to their music and what they think about other people that really don't feel the same way.
Weston: I think my generation, we've kind of heard your music through our parents, maybe at the mall or even in an elevator. Recently, though, you've been reimagined in popular music through collaborations with some of music's biggest artists. I'm wondering how those collaborations came about?
Kenny: I love the fact that they came about, by the way. The Kanye one happened organically because he had asked me to come to his house and play Valentine's Day for Kim [Kardashian]. After it was over, he brings me back to his studio because he just said, “I want you to hear some of my new music." Then because of that, I end up playing on the record because I heard one song and said, "You should let me put my sax on this one. I know it’ll sound good." He goes, “Great, let's do it."
Weston: Amazing. What’s the studio experience like?
Kenny: Well, it’s a different kind of look than I have. He's got a big room, with a huge table, and there's probably seven guys sitting around this table. Everyone's got headphones on. Everyone's doing this thing where they're grooving to something, they're programming something. Then there's a couple of other guys that are doing some rapping. They go outside, they work on their rap, they come in, they record it. So I thought, "Let me take this home to my studio and let me do my thing and I'll send it back to you." And then his engineer goes, “Kanye is not going to let his music leave the studio.” I said, “Go tell him that's what needs to happen.” And [Kanye] said, “Here take it.” So I took it home and that's how it worked out. Really, really great.
Weston: Beyond reimagining your image in a larger sense with these collabs, they kind of decontextualized your sound and put it in this really cool new context separating it from any preconceived perceptions people might have of that sound or that sonic quality. So I was wondering, what is that sonic quality? What is that Kenny G sound?
Kenny: I don't know, you know. It is what it is. It just is. It’s the way I hear my sax recorded. It’s the way I hear my songs and the way I play. Clive Davis said, “You hear a couple of notes and you know it’s [Kenny].” When you say, "What’s my sound?" and when you hear three notes, you tell me.
Weston: Speaking of your sound, I listened to the new album, New Standards, and I loved it. "Emeline" and "Rendezvous." I really loved those two a lot.
Kenny: Thank you, yeah. "Emeline" is the real example of what the album's about. It’s about those sophisticated, jazzier, complex chords, but yet I'm playing on top of it with a melody that I think works. And this combination is just beautiful to me.
Weston: I have to admit, I was a little hesitant to listen to your music around my friends. It's funny because it's almost more punk for my age group to listen to you than like The Sex Pistols or something, you know what I mean? How can your music be so beautiful and popular, yet so polarizing at the same time?
Kenny: I think there’s a lot of intellectual things that go into what [music] people like. Let's say you're in a relationship with your significant other. If you take my music as [a metaphor for] a relationship: everybody loves each other, everything is easy, you’re getting along well. Now on the other side, you've got these people that maybe want to be in a relationship, but they want it to be tougher. They want a little drama in there, and they feel that if there's drama in there, then that's a real relationship, that's got more meat and potatoes to it.
So I think what happens with my music is that some people just find it like, "Well, I want to have to work harder to like something." And my music, is just my music. I mean, I'm not trying to make people like it, but I think if you really just let yourself get away from all your mental constraints, you'd go, "That sounds good."
Weston: Right, and that's kind of that decontextualizing, with the Kanye thing and The Weeknd, to just kind of enjoy the sound and your ability, you know?
Kenny: I think they have trouble doing that because it’s an intellectual thing.
Weston: I like your analogy of the relationship and wanting it to be harder because, for example, I got into your music in the early 2010s listening to this genre, called Vaporwave. And it’s interesting how younger people have taken your songs and manipulated them to make them “harder” and thus more palatable for a younger audience.
Kenny: Wow, I’m gonna have to listen to that. I’ve never heard it, so I wouldn’t know what they did to it to tell you if I thought, “Oh, it’s cool” or not, but it wouldn’t matter if I thought it was or not, if they’re doing it, they’re doing it.
Weston: With so much amazing music, comedy and iconography pulled from the saxophone, what do you think it is that makes it one of the most iconic instruments of the last century?
Kenny: Well, I’m just biased to the sax, of course. It’s one of those instruments that can fit into whatever's going on, like a Kanye song. Who would have ever thought, but when you hear it go, “That really sounds great together.” I’m on a heavy metal record coming up. And it’s like, “I see what you shredders are doing, I can match some of these high intensity notes.” So I think the sax can find its way into these songs and if you play the right notes it really makes the song better.
Weston: Are you familiar with Adolphe Sax, the creator of the saxophone? I was reading, apparently he cheated death numerous times. I’m wondering if he had died and never invented the saxophone, what instrument do you think you’d be playing?
Kenny: Gosh, I don’t know. I don’t know if I’d have even wanted to play an instrument. I got inspired by watching a guy stand up and play a sax solo on television in the '60s and so, well, maybe someone would have stood up and played a trumpet solo. Maybe trumpet? I don't know.
Weston: Maybe oboe? I heard you played a little bit?
Kenny: I played a little bit with Liberace’s orchestra. It was fun and I was awful. He was amazing. Every show he was exactly the same. He was a consummate pro. To get the gig you had to play oboe and they asked me before, “Do you play oboe?” and I had never touched the oboe, never seen one. I go, “Absolutely, I got oboe down.” "Great, you got the gig.” I went down to the Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s oboe player and said, “Look you have to teach me the oboe, I have one week.” He goes, “It’ll never happen.” And, of course, I was fine.
Weston: He’s got an incredible name and your name has become iconic, as well. Your last name is Gorelick, but what made you choose the G?
Kenny: Well, it was 1982 when I was asked to have my own record deal with Clive [Davis]. Everyone’s calling me "G Man" at the time. “Hey, G.” “Hey G Man.” G this, G that. My manager at the time said, “You know, you should just go with Kenny G.” I go, “Yeah, that’s what everyone calls me anyway.” So I was way ahead of all the rappers. Look, if I had a name like Goldsmith or Goldberg that just comes off the tongue, but Gorelick?
Weston: It sounds like an incredible metal band I would listen to.
Kenny: There you go: Gorelick. My son Max is a metal guitarist. He’s great, he’s taken me to many shows: Opeth, Megadeth and I know about Mashugana... or Meshuggah, whatever the name of their band is. There’s a young band called Imperial Triumph that has reached out and I played a little solo for. It’s crazy stuff.
Weston: You’ve got a lot of metal people in your life. I’ve seen a picture of you golfing with Alice Cooper. Who won that game?
Kenny: If it’s no handicaps I win every time, but with handicaps you never know. He’s a great guy, couldn’t be nicer. He’s not like a wild, crazy, metal nutcase. He’s a golfer. You know what’s funny is I was thinking about him today because in Evansville, Indiana, as I’m driving there’s a marquee with his face but I thought, “You know I haven’t seen Alice in 20 years,” and he’s a great guy. I really like Alice Cooper.
Weston: Do you listen to John Zorn?
Kenny: No, don’t know the name.
Weston: Ah. Anyway, check him out.
Kenny: John Zorn and Vapor... Club.
Kenny: [Laughs] Vaporwave!
Weston: I like Vaporclub though, that can be your new thing.
Kenny: There you go. The new Vaporclub.
Weston: On your new album, you did a posthumous collaboration using “very advanced modern technology” to sample notes by Stan Getz to do a completely new melody in a duet with you. With the rise of posthumous collaborations in the music industry, there’s been a little big of pushback. I’m wondering what inspired you to attempt a collaboration of this kind, and what responsibilities you think labels and artist might have to these collaborations?
Kenny: Very good question. Well, I’m a Stan Getz fan. I love the sound. He’s inspired me and I’ve listened to Stan Getz a lot. So I thought, “I just wanna do this.” And with the technology, I don’t think anyone’s ever done this before. I think they might have taken samples of things he’s played and created the song around this whole thing, but I created a whole new melody that he never played.
The responsibility, at least for me, is anything from this song goes to the Stan Getz estate. I got in touch with his family. I don’t think I would have done it without them saying they loved it. I played the song for his widow and she had tears in her eyes. So I just think the right thing to do would be if you’re gonna go to the past, you gotta give to that. If it’s a big, huge hit, great, donate to whatever estate because maybe they need the money. Which would be great. I hope this thing generates millions of dollars and all goes to them. So happy if that happens.
Weston: As a music video director, I’m a big fan of your videos. "Silhouette" inspired me to kind of remake it with myself in the role for one of my own songs. After your excellent "In Your Eyes" performance video with The Weeknd, I’m wondering if we could see you coming back to doing music videos?
Kenny: You know, it really is the expense. It used to be VH1 was a home for our videos. Unless some video director gets a budget from somebody and says, “Hey, we wanna do a full on video." Yeah, great, let’s do it.
Weston: Hey, I’m here. Just let me know I’ll be there in a minute.
Kenny: Thanks. Oh, that sounds great. I’m sure you’d do a great job.
Weston: After watching Listening To Kenny G, I felt like it set us up for a Kenny G renaissance. What’s next for you?
Kenny: Wow, well, thank you. You know, I have a feeling this year that with all this momentum, who knows? Maybe Paul McCartney is going to call me and say, “You’re on my radar now and I’d like you to play on one of my songs,” which would be amazing. Maybe I’ll get a film score. Maybe I’ll do the theme for a great movie. But mainly I’m just looking forward to practicing and getting better. That’s kinda my thing.
Photos courtesy of Art Streiber