Likely the world’s most famous instrumentalist and certainly its most successful, with some 75 million albums sold, Kenny G effectively birthed smooth jazz as a marketable format and forever earned the loathing of genre purists. New HBO documentary Listening to Kenny G, which won rave reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival, expects you’re already familiar with the much-maligned sax god and, absent any revelations, asks you to consider the man within the meme.
While most biographies of living legends focus on either vicariously reliving the triumph of artistry over family, country and economy, or relishing a salacious peek behind the music, Listening to Kenny G isn’t particularly interested in explaining the ways fortune found a hyper-ambitious man blessed with a perfect elevator pitch. This even-handed portrait wonders instead just how an awkward noodler spun platinum from a moribund medium, and why so many, many critics took objection.
To some extent, the former Kenneth Gorelick could’ve come from anywhere, but the early Starbucks investor’s Seattle origins do seem especially apropos. Still, while Portland cannot claim him as our own, the path that brought the University of Washington accounting student to the attention of major record labels arguably begins in Puddletown. Portland drummer laureate Mel Brown, the Motown vet who kept the beat for a cavalcade of stars (Diana Ross, Tommy Chong, Martha Reeves, the Temptations) before returning home in the ‘70s to reignite the local jazz scene, spoke with WW about hiring a hardworking young horn player to jam with his band decades ago.
WW: When did you meet Kenny G?
Mel Brown: Around the mid-’70s, I’d just come from New York after bouncing back and forth between the Supremes and the Temptations. Instead of going back to the whole Motown thing, I decided I really just wanted to play jazz here in Portland. So, I opened up the drum shop and put together a quintet. We had Thara Memory on trumpet. Omar Yeoman played the bass. The piano player was Jeff Lorber, from Philadelphia, and a guy named Bob Hutchins played saxophone.
Hutchins ended up moving to New York. That’s when Jeff Lorber brought to our attention this saxophone player going to school at the University of Washington and I got a chance to meet him—Kenny Gorelick! He was really a very nice young man, you know. Hard worker.
Any hint of what was to come?
No, not at that point. That really doesn’t happen too often with younger players. You need the chance to hear them in different settings and find out their possibilities.
Was this Kenny’s first serious band?
I don’t know if my band was his first, but it was an early one, I’ll put it that way.
He was the youngest?
Everybody was pretty young, but I guess Kenny was the youngest member. He wasn’t too much younger than Jeff.
And, eventually, they…
What happened was that we started to change. Everybody’s ears opened around town, but these guys…they were hustlers, especially Jeff Lorber. One night, after paying the guys their money, Thara Memory let me know that Jeff had a few words with the club owner, saying he was starting his own band. Jeff was getting ready to go into the fusion sound, and he had a band that could work for less money than I was charging. I was like, “OK, let’s just get some different people.”
Jeff started the Jeff Lorber Fusion project, and Kenny went with him. He was just trying to finish up school. The guys kept it going and, you know, bless their hearts, they got something happening and, from that point on, other bands started springing up. People started looking at Portland. It wasn’t a real strong jazz situation around here. Everybody used to come from San Francisco, skip us, and go to Seattle.
Why was that?
Because they didn’t think there was any music here! [laughs] Then, all of a sudden, people started discovering Portland, and it was like, “Hey, man, they have some talent!”
So, Lorber and Kenny played around Portland for a while?
Well, it wasn’t a long period of time. Around then, you usually traveled around trying for gigs in, say, Seattle or Tacoma or wherever. I think they had a manager or some type of representation. They were getting the big shows, but they weren’t the big names. I don’t know when Kenny left Jeff. At that time, I was back into Motown and, on the road, we started hearing about this saxophone player. “Kenny G? Kenny G?” And, then it hit me—that’s Kenny Gorelick!
And what did you think?
Oh, it knocked me out! I mean, it sounded really good! What I think happened with Kenny, he kind of developed his own sound—just like Miles had his own sound and Coltrane had his, playing tenor. There are a lot of players around that play really well, but they don’t have their own sound. With my band, Kenny played alto. Not many guys were playing soprano so, when he started, that stood out. He wanted that different sound.
For anyone not well versed in that style of music, how would you describe the difference?
Most people can’t tell you who’s playing what instrument. The soprano sticks out. It’s a much, much lighter sound—pleasing when it hits the ear. With soprano, you kind of sing a little more.
SEE IT: Listening to Kenny G begins streaming on HBO and HBO Max on Thursday, Dec. 2. Mel Brown plays at the Jack London Revue, 529 SW 4th Ave., 866-777-8932, jacklondonrevue.com. 8 pm Thursday, Dec. 9. $20-$150. 21+.