2:51 PM CDT, April 12, 2013
Everyone in jazz knows that alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett can play. The question is what he decides to play – and how.
Through the decades, Garrett has tried to strike a balance between jazz complexity and pop accessibility. At his best, he has turned in music of substance and technical bravura. At his worst, he has produced bleating, vapid work, as in his performances with Miles Davis toward the end of the trumpeter's life, in the early 1990s.
Garrett's pursuit of popular appeal has built him a large and loyal following, which packed the Jazz Showcase on Thursday night. The artistic results, however, were mixed, for it was possible to admire Garrett's facility on alto – and his quintet's high level of musicianship – without being much moved by it.
Garrett and his quintet opened with an avalanche of sound fashioned to conquer an audience rather than win it over. All this volume, energy and massive sonority certainly created the aura of excitement but quickly became repetitive. When you open this big, there's nowhere to go but down.
Each musician produced enough ideas for an evening's worth of musical discourse, but the din and textural thickness of the music-making quickly tired the ear. This bill of fare would have played far better in a raucous dance club than in a jazz listening room.
Garrett and friends maintained something close to that level of frenzy through most of the set, roaring from one unnamed composition to the next with nary a breath between them. But it was only when particular musicians took solos that the listener could take the full measure of these artists' contributions.
Individually, Vernell Brown Jr.'s oft-brilliant pianism, Corcoran Holt's soulful bass playing, McClenty Hunter Jr.'s explosive drum work and Rudy Bird's multi-layered percussion were compelling. En masse, however, far less so.
Garrett's alto somehow penetrated this wall of sound, the saxophonist in his better moments showing conversance with late-period John Coltrane and attempting to capture that kind of fervency. But the opaqueness and over-amplification of Garrett's sound diminished the effect.
In the sole ballad of the evening's first set, the intricate inner workings of this band were apparent and impressive. Yet Garrett's decision to restate his theme over and over, rather than develop it, proved counterproductive.
Opening nights are always tough for touring bands trying to figure out a room and an audience. As this engagement unfolds, a lot less hysteria and a little more deliberation would improve matters significantly.
When: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday
Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.
Tickets: $25-$50; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com
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