Thursday, January 21, 2010

Pat Metheny on Kenny G

When you do something for a living, you have a certain skill set that lets you appreciate the quality of your colleagues' work. A reporter can read a story by another reporter and appreciate the legwork that went into the investigation, or the ability to find an interesting angle in an otherwise mundane story. Filmmakers see nuances in the work of other directors that are lost on the rest of us. They can tell the difference between someone who's great and someone who's just faking their way through it.

With my fellow writers, I've found that much of our conversation centers around great examples of strong writing that we've found... whether it's a new book, or a magazine article, or a lost nugget we've dug out of a musty archive. We usually just ignore bad writing. There's usually no reason to bother commetning on it.

All too often, there's someone whose lack of talent doesn;t stop them from being a commercial success. It's a sad truth in the publishing world that most books don't sell more than a few thousand copies, but a television personality or syndicated radio host can use his platform to sell hundreds of thousands of copies of a poorly written, poorly researched collection of paragraphs. That's just the way it is -- not just in the book business but in business overall. We grumble about it amongst ourselves and keep plugging away.

Occasionaly, one of these examples reaches a point where someone needs to speak out, because it's undeserved success attacks the credibility of its genre. Comedian Joe Rogan felt obliged to speak out against what he felt was plagarism by fellow comic Carlos Mencia, because "no one defended the integrity of this great art form."

And then there's this. Jazz musician Pat Metheny -- winner of 17 Grammy Awards -- was asked what he thought of saxaphonist Kenny G. He gave a scathing 1500 word response, which included a criticism of Kenny G's basic musical abilities, his knowledge of the genre, and his artistic choices. Here's a small sampling.

I first heard him a number of years ago playing as a sideman with Jeff Lorber when they opened a concert for my band. My impression was that he was someone who had spent a fair amount of time listening to the more pop oriented sax players of that time, like Grover Washington or David Sanborn, but was not really an advanced player, even in that style. He had major rhythmic problems and his harmonic and melodic vocabulary was extremely limited, mostly to pentatonic based and blues-lick derived patterns, and he basically exhibited only a rudimentary understanding of how to function as a professional soloist in an ensemble - Lorber was basically playing him off the bandstand in terms of actual music.

But he did show a knack for connecting to the basest impulses of the large crowd by deploying his two or three most effective licks (holding long notes and playing fast runs - never mind that there were lots of harmonic clams in them) at the key moments to elicit a powerful crowd reaction (over and over again). The other main thing I noticed was that he also, as he does to this day, played horribly out of tune - consistently sharp.

It gets much, much better...