It makes no sense that Kenny Garrett has yet to release a live album. After all, he’s one of the best alto saxophonists of his generation, and he’s been on the scene plenty long enough. Garrett first gained national attention in the ’80s, playing with such departed jazz heroes as Woody Shaw, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, andmost significantlyMiles Davis. As a solo artist, he’s released a series of albums chronicling the development of his distinctive style, which combines the bold abstraction of free jazz with the emotional directness of R&B.
In concert, Garrett brings it on as if someone had a gun to his head. He’ll embellish a composition with improvisations so elastic they can stretch to encompass just about anything. Garrett accentuates his quicksilver solos with swashbuckling swagger, zooming through complex harmonics and turbulent rhythms. And like tenor titans Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, Garrett can hold court for two hourswith fewer than four tunes.
Garrett has long expressed a desire to record a live date, but for now, the balls-to-the-wall scorcher Standard of Language will sufficeit’s the studio album that comes closest to capturing the intensity of Garrett’s live shows. Before recording it, Garrett toured extensively with his current quartet, which also includes bassist Charnett Moffett, drummer Chris Dave, and pianist Vernell Brown. Only when their electrifying synergy had reached its peak did Garrett bring his band into the studio.
In the person of producer Marcus Miller, who is better known for helming pop-oriented albums, the saxophonist found someone to craft succinct tracks from his extended improvisations. The CD opens with a hot-wired rendition of Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?”and the romance it achieves is anything but the swooning, debonair variety. Garrett slashes through the melody, then blasts off into a rapturous, harmonically complex improvisation that recalls Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” Dave’s hyperactive polyrhythms, Moffett’s jittery bass lines, and Brown’s barreling piano propel the circuitous sax solo with incredible velocity. The performance is almost overheated; when it concludes with a lissome calypso bounce à la Rollins’ “St. Thomas,” it becomes clear that for Garrett, this thing called love is really a passion for virtuosic showmanship.
And that track pretty much sets the pace for Language. About two-thirds of the way into the modal “XYZ,” Garrett’s supple improvisation gives way to bloodcurdling screeches. On the smoldering “Chief Blackwater,” that piercing alto rides roughshod over thick layers of rhythm. And on the three-part title track, which features Eric Harland replacing Dave, the quartet charges through a series of motifs as herky-jerky as a bumper-car ride.
With so much virtuosity on display, it would be easy to dismiss Language as an overwrought blowing session. But the album reveals as much brain as it does brawn. Garrett’s gift for intriguing rhythms and inimitable melodies shines through on “Kurita Sensei” and “Gendai,” both of which illustrate his interest in Japanese culture. “Kurita Sensei,” dedicated to his former Japanese-language teacher, waltzes in a rather conventional 6/8, but its tricky Morse-code groove and serpentine melody toss you off balance, demonstrating Garrett’s deftness at building idiosyncratic compositions. “Gendai” starts at the same tempo, but it quickly gives way to a 4/4 swing that drives a knotty little melody.
Garrett’s golden moment as a composer here, however, is the picturesque “Doc Tone’s Short Speech,” a tribute to the late keyboardist Kenny Kirkland. The mood is more meditative than most of Language, but it’s still rhythmically adventurous. A luring montuno figure buoys Garrett’s improvisations, which are more akin to Wayne Shorter’s at his most reflective than Coltrane’s emotive exorcisms.
It’s only on “Native Tongue” that Language falters. Here, Garrett recalls the pop-oriented melodies and song structures that marred earlier albums such as Happy People and Simply Said. On both, Garrett flirted with R&B and funk vamps, and the result was listless pap. There’s no denying that such R&B players as Maceo Parker and King Curtis have influenced Garrett’s playing. And Garrett has long pursued side gigs with non-jazz-artists such as Cameo, Youssou N’Dour, Q-Tip, and Sting. But when the saxophonist tries to incorporate pop’s melodic sensibility into his instrumentals, the up-tempo cuts lack fire and the ballads drip with sentimentality. “Native Tongue” is no exception: The sugary melody and airy rhythm sound more appropriate for an early-morning talk-radio show than a late-night jam session.
But Garrett indulges his pop tendencies on only this one cut, and on the whole he delivers the most heroic-sounding album of his career. If Standard of Language isn’t the Live at the Village Vanguard Garrett so desperately needs to record, it nonetheless makes you want to be there, sitting front and center, when he finally gets to. CP