Anyone who walked into the Hard Rock Rocksino in Northfield on Tuesday expecting a night of laid-back, sleep-inducing lullabies from Kenny G had their hopes dashed as soon as the iconic saxophonist took the stage.
Or rather, as soon as he sauntered into the concert hall.
See, Kenny entered the big room from the back—the main doors—and performed the 1988 cuts “Home” and “Silhouette” while wandering the aisles. Perched on a crate in the center of the audience, the sultan of smooth jazz basked in a single spotlight for a good fifteen minutes before making his way to the stage.
The dramatic entrance trained the near-capacity crowd to expect the unexpected from the bestselling instrumentalist, not just some rote yawn-fest or bland soundtrack for easy dinner digestion.
“Kenny G” Gorelick and his crew kept people guessing most of the gig, deftly nursing that unpredictability factor with impromptu jams, spontaneous solos, good humor, and several unscripted moments of just the sort that truly distinguishes a show and makes the night a memorable one.
We spoke at length with Kenny about his art (link below) during a phone interview in advance of show and cleared up a few myths about his discovery, breakthrough on Arista in the mid-1980s, and recent move to Concord Records. So we’ll confine ourselves here to the sights and sounds at the Hard Rock last night and skip the career sketch (Kenny G is practically a household name; we’re guessing you know it if you clicked your way here).
“It’s great to be back in Cleveland!” Kenny beamed three songs in. “It’s been too long!”
The saxophonist reported his group had been in town (from New Jersey) since 10:00am and spent a lot of time sound-checking. The Hard Rock concert marked the last on their current tour (for a couple weeks, anyway), and Kenny promised the faithful in attendance that he and his five-piece band would give everything they had, since they’d nothing else to save it for.
Give they did, and then some.
“G-Bop” (from 1992’s Breathless) was vibrant, upbeat, and funky. “Forever in Love”—which earned a Grammy for Best Instrumental in 1994—was sultry and sweet as ever. “Havana” (from 1996 effort the Moment) was a musical tour de force that found Kenny and company trading riffs and going round-robin with their conversational solo spots. Guitarist John Raymond wailed on a Fender Stratocaster, bending and sweep-picking notes over drummer Daniel Bejarano’s palpitating rumba rhythms.
Burly percussionist Ron Powell temporarily quit his congas to play hand-held drumheads and tambourines front and center. Coaxing the crowd into clapping along, call-and-answer-style, Powell juggled the heads and spun them over and around his body like a Harlem Globetrotter maneuvering a basketball. Blowing a coach’s whistle for added carnival vibe, Powell thumped the skins off his elbows and knees while clomping his foot on the floor.
Was this Northfield, or Rio de Janeiro?
Locale aside, it was easy to believe Kenny when he said it was the best in-concert percussion solo he’s ever seen. The muscular Powell could be a circus performer if he ever tired of live music—but we suspect that won’t happen anytime soon, given his permanent smile.
Kenny wielded a tenor sax on the Antonio Carlos Jobim-written “Desafinado,” in homage to Stan Getz, the iconic bossa nova musician who recorded the track for his acclaimed 1962 album, Jazz Samba. Kenny even squeezed in a teaser of Jobim’s “Girl From Ipanema” for good measure.
Taken from one of Kenny’s many holiday CDs (we forget which), “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” started as a hard-charging rockabilly tune, progressed into freeform jazz, then segued into an impressive Bejarano drum solo. Kenny admitted August wasn’t the “right time” for the holiday staple, but nobody minded celebrating the Christmas spirit in late summer (Old Man Winter can keep his weather, thanks). Like most selections on the itinerary, “Santa” was stretched from its four-minute running time into a cyclical, protracted jam that highlighted everybody’s talent (and incorporated the “Jeopardy” theme) before Bejarnano’s beats routed them back to the song proper. We’d venture most of the tunes clocked in between seven and ten minutes, but the music always sounded sprightly and exotic rather than trippy, meandering, or self-indulgent.
Kenny introduced his accompanists midway through the set, proudly announcing that they’ve all been with him since their teenage years in Seattle, some thirty years ago.
“We’re products of the public school system,” boasted Kenny, who put in a good word for music education—and then showed off the very same soprano sax (the thin, clarinet-looking model) he’s had since his days at Franklin High.
“What I hold in my hands represents the longest relationship I’ve ever had,” he mused.
“Some days I don’t know whether to feel good or bad about that!”
Originally trained on trumpet, pianist Robert Damper tickled the ivories at stage right on “Heart & Soul.” Raymond attacked his Strat like a rock guitar god, but spent more time flaying a unique-looking nylon-string guitar that was all frame and no body. Raymond proved himself a versatile axe-man, and spiced up an already flavorful mix whether strumming bright jazz chords, picking Latin-flavored arpeggios, plucking the strings flamenco-style, or racing his fingers up and down the guitar neck like a heavy metal wizard.
“His hair was longer than mine when we started,” teased Kenny, who still sports his signature curls.
Raymond smiled and tipped his hat, revealing a bald pate.
As if Kenny’s airy forays and Powell’s percussion thunderstorms weren’t enough, the band got fans even more involved by raffling off one of Kenny’s custom saxophones at the halfway point. Concertgoers were given one entry ticket for each CD they bought out in the lobby before and during the show.
The winning stub (587261) belonged to Karl Perrin, but the young fellow made good on his promise to share the prize with companion Chonlada Gesaman—who had likewise purchased a disc, and agreed with Perrin to split the booty if either of them got lucky. Karl certainly capitalized on his good fortune, transforming “his moment” into something of a family reunion by bringing up Gesaman and two other lady-friends (Joy and Faith) to sit with him for Kenny’s “private” serenade.
“We’re gonna be best friends for three minutes and fifteen seconds!” joked Kenny.
But the headliner kept his end of the bargain by performing the touching “Innocence” (from the 1996 album The Moment) up-close for his four special guests, who looked on in rapture from makeshift seats. At the end of the tune, Kenny removed the microphone and mouthpiece from the gleaming instrument and proffered it to Perrin.
Kenny feigned annoyance at the number of extra visitors, but conceded that the females spared him and Karl the awkwardness of having to gaze into each other’s eyes during the breezy ballad.
Gesaman told us later she’ll probably display the sax in her new Thai restaurant.
The band took a well-deserved break as Kenny tooted along to the Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” The horn man gestured to the image of the legendary New Orleans trumpeter on the Rocksino’s two big screens, riffing gently over (and between) the prerecorded verses.
Video duet with Armstrong notwithstanding, the concert didn’t feature any vocals—which spoke to Kenny’s showmanship: The guy knows how to pace a concert and captivate an audience with his music, sprinkling in enough visuals to keep things interesting. The notes so effectively transcended spoken language on their own that words just weren’t missed.
In fact, lyrics might only have gotten in the way.
As the name suggests, “Cadenza” found Kenny riffing alone, all eight fingers pumping furiously on a largely improvised solo that played like a saxophone analog to Eddie Van Halen’s “Eruption.” You’d have thought one of Kenny’s digits would come flying off during the routine, or that he’d eventually come up gasping for air. Instead, the sliver-slim horn man steered his way into “Songbird,” the whimsical, romantic smash hit from 1986’s Duotones.
“Awww!” the enchanted crowd sighed in unison.
Earlier, Kenny hinted that bassist Vail Johnson would thrill with his solo (“You won’t believe it’s a white guy!”), and the Swedish-born musician did just that with his revved-up rendition of “Amazing Grace.” Using fingers and thumbs, Johnson eked out the verses of the traditional hymn on his Roscoe fretless five-string—but he slapped, popped, and funked in between, making the piece his own.
Johnson’s “Amazing Grace” appears on his 2013 solo CD, Flow. His latest album, Come Together, features covers of Beatles hits like “Hard Day’s Night,” “Lady Madonna,” and “Let It Be.”
Kenny and the others strode back onstage as Johnson wound down. We missed Average White Band at Cain Park earlier this summer, but Kenny’s encore more than made up for it: Taken from AWB’s eponymous second album, 1974 funk workout “Pick Up the Pieces” truly brought down the house.