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Saxophone Superman Kenny Garrett: Alto Sax Icons Part 3 at Revolution Hall / Portland Jazz Festival 2020

By MICHAEL "SHOEHORN" CONLEY // Garrett, dressed in a sharkskin suit and a kufi cap, his body rocking, got into intense overblowing and controlled distortion, hitting multiphonics and harmonics, pushing the horn to the maximum.

After an amusing introduction by local musician Christopher Brown, Kenny Garrett’s band took the stage and proceeded to throw down. Garrett, who had flown in directly from Poland, appeared to launch into these tunes with no count-off, his players very comfortable with the material.

This band generated a lot of excitement, and, in contrast with the opening act Maria Grand, the elderly gentleman in the seat next to me did not look drowsy at all during Garrett’s act! In fairness to Grand, I thought her set was creative and engaging, and she made a bold showing, in a tenor sax/bass/drums, all-female format. Visibly pregnant, she also made some references to International Women’s Day. It is encouraging to see young women playing such sincere and accomplished music.

Garrett, dressed in a sharkskin suit and a kufi cap, his body rocking, got into intense overblowing and controlled distortion, hitting multiphonics and harmonics, pushing the horn to the maximum. The rhythm section playing was great but sometimes Corcoran Holt’s bass tones collided with each other due to over-amped volume, which also drowned out the piano quite a bit throughout the concert. This is something I have observed at many shows, and I don’t think the players themselves are always responsible.

In any case, Garrett’s band is all about the interplay of drums and sax.

And besides the young drummer Samuel Laviso, there was a percussionist, Rudy Bird, who also contributed wordless vocals to the mix via a headset mic. The first tune wound down with a nice spiritual vibe akin to 1960s cosmic jazz stuff, with arco bass over a long, almost overwrought fade-out, which included some nice subtone voicings from Garrett.

On a subsequent number, Garrett’s alto called the band in over a funk groove with some long, bent notes, the leader grabbing a tambourine during a cool piano solo by Vernell Brown, which was again a bit drowned-out by the rest of the band.

Garrett is a very charismatic performer, and he engaged the crowd in a funky sing-along number, chanting “work it out” over the band's busy grooving, then picked up the soprano saxophone, throwing in some amusing quotes such as the “William Tell Overture” and a trace of the old standard “Back Home in Indiana”.

When the group launched into a bit of very fast swing, percussionist Bird laid out, the bass and the piano dropped out in succession, leaving Garrett and the drummer on stage to simply rip it up, the saxman shredding long, astonishing flurries of notes over the energetic drumming.

Towards the end of the set they launched into Garrett's hit “Happy People Music”, a feel-good anthem, again engaging the crowd to sing-along with the simple major-key refrain.

Garrett oozes charisma and confidence and definitely has entertainer chops along with his impressive skills on the saxophone. Looking around the auditorium I saw a few sax players that I know, doubtless there to get a little inspiration for our next live sets!

After the show while I was visiting with some local musicians, Garrett himself approached me, noticing my tiny soprano saxophone case and immediately engaging me in some of the shoptalk saxophone players are famous for, asking about my setup on alto as well. I didn't think to ask him about his own equipment, but we posed for a photo opp.

I have deep respect for each of the three alto saxophone players in this series, and each represents a unique, highly-developed concept of what the instrument can express.

Kenny Garrett stands out for his high-energy presentation, phenomenal chops, and the sheer exuberance of his performance.

Miguel Zenon and his band probe some of the deeper aspects of Afro-Caribbean polyrhythm, advancing the music into unexplored areas. David Sanborn, a consummate entertainer, presented a killer, modern band with a trace of nostalgic appeal relating to his prime years as a top-call soloist and star sideman and leader.

As an alto saxophone player myself, I definitely was inspired and stimulated by these concerts and benefited from seeing these players perform at such a high level. I thank biamp PDX Jazz Festival for booking these killer acts and urge OMN readers to support the organization and the concerts they produce throughout the year, as well as the festival itself.

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