Skip to content
HBO’s new doc Kenny G re-evaluates decades of anti-‘Songbird’ smug

I put saxophonist Kenny G’s pop-jazz mega-hit “Songbird” on a playlist last week. As an aspiring high school hipster in the ’80s, I had long convinced myself that I hated everything: the cheesy vibrato, the too soft melody, the heavy beat of the drums, the calculated intensity of the highs. It was a characterless beige soundtrack to watch halfway through. Maybe you’ll hum while it inevitably played in a mall or dentist’s office. But not me. Nope. Certainly not.

It is this anti-G identity that Penny Lane’s wonderful new documentary, “Listening to Kenny G” gently and politely pierces a hole.

Not liking Kenny G isn’t just an aesthetic preference. It’s a way of saying that you are cultured, intelligent, and more demanding than all those people who made Kenny G the best-selling instrumental artist of all time. It is a declaration of identity.

But it’s that anti-G identity that Penny Lane’s wonderful new documentary, “Listening to Kenny G,” gently and politely cuts through. Like the wonderful appreciation of Celine Dion by critic Carl Wilson, the documentary makes you question not only what you love and hate, but who you are when you love and hate. You still might not like Kenny G’s music after watching the movie. But you are unlikely to feel so smug about it.

Lane interviews a number of music critics who argue against the son of a Seattle Jewish plumber, Kenny Gorelick, and his easy-to-listen songs with phenomenal success. “He makes great music for nice people,” sneers critic Will Layman. Jazz guitarist Pat Metheny savagely murdered Kenny G in an interview in 2000, attacking his technical skills and suggesting he was motivated by money and fame rather than respect or love for the jazz tradition. “He showed a talent,” Metheny admits sourly, “for connecting to the lower impulses of the large crowd.”

Any very popular pop musician is likely to be accused of procuring. But Lane’s documentary leaves little doubt that Kenny G, whatever you think of his music, is in fact pursuing his own very idiosyncratic take.

And despite what critics like Metheny may assume, this vision does not focus primarily on audience enjoyment, but on Kenny G’s own process. The saxophonist still practices three hours a day, every day, alone, in his House. (At one point, he wishes he could train for five.)

Kenny G practices the saxophone to become a better musician, just as he obsessively golfs to become a better (and award-winning) golfer. But he also sees the practice as an ethic and even an aesthetic in itself. When Lane asks him what he likes about music, he’s almost bewildered. But then he says – with his whole face moving with joy – “I guess for me when I hear music, I think about the musicians and how much they had to practice.”

Kenny G geeks on the practice; he is passionate about production technology with a similar verve. His most recent album, “New Standards,” released in December, took two years to produce, in part because it uses painstaking studio editing to make sure every note is accurate. “It may sound sterile,” he said to Lane, as he touched her heart, “but it’s from here.”

This isolated and perfectionist approach to music seems completely disconnected from the collective and improvised history of jazz. And of course, New York Times critic Ben Ratliff says “Kenny G’s music seems to have nothing to do with a past.”

But that claim also crumbles under Lane’s gentle scrutiny. Kenny G reverently speaks of listening to saxophonist Grover Washington Jr.’s album “Inner City Blues” every night for two years in high school. He is shown in concert talking about Stan Getz and covering John Coltrane’s “Naima” – a song which, with its lovely melody and relaxed, seamless tune, seems like it could fit into many jazz playlists.

Spirited and spontaneous jazz is certainly a tradition. But there is also a jazz heritage of meticulous, melodic, ambient, sound decoration.

Spirited and spontaneous jazz is certainly a tradition. But there is also a jazz heritage of meticulous, melodic, ambient, sound decoration. Kenny G merged that heritage with the fluid R&B jams of the ’80s and’ 90s (check out his collaborations with Toni Braxton) to create an incredibly popular and ubiquitous hybrid that has conquered business establishments and offices all the way to China.

Kenny G’s whiteness has certainly helped open doors for him, which he acknowledges. But Pat Metheny and Stan Getz are white, and they didn’t scale the charts like Kenny G did. You could say that G lacks courage. But does someone who practices three hours a day lack courage? You could say it is inauthentic. But he makes sincere music because he loves sincere music. Where is the inauthenticity?

Kenny G, the personification of bland, took the stage for his first professional solo as a teenager and played a single note for 10 minutes, like an eccentric experimental drone. Maybe Pat Metheny and I in high school are the blinkered ones, trapped in our conventions of sclerotic nonconformity like songbirds walking in an elevator.

Listening to Kenny G after watching “Listening to Kenny G”, I don’t know if I’m part of a weird, frozen wallpaper, or if I’ve spread my wings and soared into a different musical dimension. It’s disorienting, or maybe relaxing. I think about how all of Kenny G’s practice has made me unable to tell the difference.


nbcnews Gt

Not all news on the site expresses the point of view of the site, but we transmit this news automatically and translate it through programmatic technology on the site and not from a human editor.