Jazz CD Reviews
Kenny Garrett – Sketches of MD: Live at the Iridium – Mack Avenue
Published on September 26, 2008
(Kenny Garrett – organ, synthesizer, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, producer; Benito Gonzalez – synthesizer, piano, Fender Rhodes; Nat Reeves – bass; Pharoah Sanders – tenor saxophone, vocals; Jamire Williams – drums)
Sketches of MD, Kenny Garrett’s new release and his first for the Mack Avenue label, is a tribute of sorts, not only to Miles Davis – the MD alluded to in the album’s title – but also inspired by several musicians who played in Davis’ various groups. Garrett, of course, is no stranger to Davis’ music, since he performed with Miles Davis from 1987-1991.
Sketches of MD finely, assuredly captures Garrett and his band, with special guest Pharoah Sanders, during a five-night stretch at New York City’s famed Iridium Jazz Club – Garrett’s home away from home. Garrett says the project’s conceptual nature was not pre-arranged, “The idea of doing the Miles-related songs just evolved.” The music, as well, developed from an incomplete outline and rehearsals to the final fruition, the material pursuing or following wherever the muse decided to go, so the result was as new to the audience as it was to the musicians. Garrett’s previous explorations have switched from Coltrane-esque modal workouts to firmly charged post-bop, and jazz-funk to Asian/Eastern intonations. On Sketches of MD, Garrett brings these varied creative impulses into a crowd-pleasing totality.
The set opens with “The Ring,” an expansive introgression reminiscent of “A Love Supreme,” with harmonic overtones that evoke John Coltrane’s mid-sixties era, particularly when Garrett’s alto sax and Sanders’ tenor sax articulate as a multi-hued voice, accompanied by Benito Gonzalez’s chord-leaping piano flurries. The other pieces do not necessarily elicit Coltrane’s spirit, but all of the five live cuts share Coltrane’s penchant for elongated journeys, soul-stirred communication, and taking listeners to unexpected territory.
Faith and celestial contemplation are the bedrock of “Intro to Africa,” a haunting, bluesy meditation. While Gonzalez vamps on piano, Garrett and Sanders start chanting, then organ filters into the background, sax takes over the front spot; finally organ, piano, and sax exchange viewpoints as the tune finishes with a gospel-tinted touch. Garrett fans should note “Intro to Africa” is the inaugural taste of a longer suite that Garrett plans to record in the future, thus marking this conception as the first draft or sketch for a much larger effort.
Listening to the title track, it is clear this is Garrett musing on Miles Davis. The ten-minute long “Sketches of MD” echoes Davis’ funky and circulative seventies period. The piece begins with spare, rhythmic repetitions courtesy of drummer Jamire Williams and bassist Nat Reeves; Garrett and Sanders add minimal horn coloring, gathering some pressure, before the exposition sways into a sacred, subdued stimulation painted by percussive effects and synth.
The concert ends with two favorites that the Iridium club goers respond heartily to. First is Garrett’s nod to fellow saxophonist Wayne Shorter, “Wayne’s Thang,” which Garrett recorded on his 1995 album, Trilogy. The excellent, new rendition is earthier and grittier. The hook-laden funk is kick-started by Williams’ bass drum and cymbals, and Gonzalez’s Bob James-ian Fender Rhodes keyboard licks. In short order, Garrett enters with a swaggering sax that answers the backbeat. An extended middle section that includes wah-wah effects and uses full bar breaks adds to the groove-loaded momentum. By this point, Garrett and the rest of the group delineate another Davis alumni, Herbie Hancock. It’s unfortunate the song fades out at the eleven-minute mark (who knows how long that groove really lasted?), but listeners’ still get a full funk infusion.
The infectious personality of “Wayne’s Thang” is hard to top, but Garrett manages to do so with “Happy People,” a muscular hit that has become a staple of Garrett’s tours since he released it as the title track of his 2002 Happy People album. Garrett asks the boisterous audience, “Are you happy people? Then let’s do this thing then! For all of the happy people here, make some noise!” Indeed they do. The jumping tune hustles right from the get-go. Drummer Williams plunges in, keyboardist Gonzalez and Garrett bustle alongside. The chorus is repeated over and over, going on and on. Garrett and Sanders impart a chef’s salad of musical quotes, from Donald Byrd-inflected soul to fierce contemporized jazz, slipping in and out of a Weather Report-like inclination that bodily references “Birdland,” and also fomenting a charismatic groove similar to mid-seventies Herbie Hancock. “Happy People” is obviously known to anyone who has seen Garrett before, but the well-loved set closer never sounds worn out.
On Sketches of MD, Kenny Garrett offers a three-dimensional and thoroughly captivating show, but just as importantly Garrett proves he is searching for fresh musical perspectives, challenging himself while maintaining a steadfast rapport with fans.
1 The Ring
2 Intro to Africa
3 Sketches of MD
4 Wayne’s Thang
5 Happy People
— Doug Simpson