July 24, 2024

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CD review: Kenny Garrett & Svoy – Who Killed AI? – 2024: Video, CD cover

For more than three decades saxophonist Kenny Garrett has been on the forefront of the most adventurous and creative collaborations in jazz, having performed with generations of innovators such as Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard and more. The living legend charts yet another path in his illustrious career with the release of his first ever electronic album, an avenue to explore new sounds.

“My palette is open to all kinds of music,” says the Grammy®-winning alto and soprano saxophonist Kenny Garrett. Among the most compelling improvisers, composers and bandleaders in jazz, he broke through as a crucial collaborator with Miles Davis, whose influence permeates Garrett’s new electronic LP, Who Killed AI?

“I don’t think a lot of people really understand my history, so this project might be a surprise to some,” says Garrett, a 2023 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master.

The Mack Avenue release, Who Killed AI? — seven irresistibly grooving, hook-filled jams shaped with the producer-musician Svoy — is the latest juncture in Garrett’s lifelong exploration, an additional “canvas to paint,” to borrow one of his favorite metaphors. It is also proof of how technically commanding, hard-earned musicianship — Garrett’s solos were captured in single takes — can thrive inside laptop-generated sounds.

Over the past four decades, the Detroit-born virtuoso has applied his brush to an impossibly rich range of music — from jazz icons like Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard and Chick Corea to Guru, Q-Tip, Peter Gabriel, Sting, Bruce Springsteen and Meshell Ndegeocello. In any situation, whether drum-and-bass, fusion or Bruce Hornsby, “I can hear myself on everything,” Garrett explains. “I can hear my voice.” On recordings or on stage, that voice is frequently stunning — elegant and lyrical and reminiscent of Coltrane-indebted power. “Like, when I heard Miles do ‘Human Nature’ for the first time,” he continues, “I knew exactly what I was going to play.”

Who Killed AI? arrives during a fascinating time for the intersection of jazz and pop culture, when improvised music and spiritual jazz are covered by tastemaking publications and finding new, young audiences raised on hip-hop and indie rock. In many ways, it’s an explosive, creative period that musicians like Garrett made possible. The most headline-worthy example of this moment, André 3000’s experimental, ambient flute project New Blue Sun, recently inspired Garrett’s wide-open mind. “André’s doing his thing,” Garrett begins, “and I think the way he thinks about music falls in with the way I think about Who Killed AI?: I want the people to hear this as one piece of music, even though they’re different songs. I want them to take a journey.”

That otherworldly voyage was recorded mostly in Garrett’s New Jersey living room, with a friend who lives just a few minutes away. Svoy, or Misha Tarasov, is an award-winning multi-hyphenate who has found success both as a solo artist in pop-tinged electronica and as a go-to collaborator across genres. A longtime Garrett fan, Svoy worked with the saxophonist as a singer on the incantatory “Welcome Earth Song,” off 2012’s Seeds From the Underground, and wrote a gorgeous string arrangement for “Brother Brown,” off the following year’s Pushing the World Away.

The sessions for Who Killed AI?, as Garrett recalls, were remarkably comfortable. “All Misha had to do was show up with a computer; we’d set up a mic and that was that,” Garrett says. “It was really just about having fun. It wasn’t like you were in the studio. We’d be joking around, grab something to drink, then say, ‘OK, let’s try this! Let me play that melody…’”

The good times and the open-to-anything vibe are palpable in the music, as is Miles’ imprint, especially early on. “The first two songs are really reminiscent of Miles,” Garrett says. “The way I’m stretching the melody — that’s how I played with Miles.” On “Ascendence,” the saxophonist notes, “I’m thinking about Miles … playing more of the chromatic melodies” that Garrett would have performed between the time he joined the trumpeter’s band in 1987 and Miles’ final concert, at the Hollywood Bowl in 1991. The track also features Garrett doing his hilariously accurate impression of Miles’ raspy speaking voice. “Miles used to count this strange way, where he would say, ‘Kenny — 10teen, 11teen, 12teen, 13teen.’ And I’m like, ‘What!? What is that?’” Garrett laughs. The second cut, “Miles Running Down AI,” its title a play on a classic modal jam off Bitches Brew, attempts to answer Garrett’s question of “What would Miles sound like if he played Coachella?”

The poignant, drifting ballad “Transcendence” follows, and then comes “Divergence Tu-dah,” a sultry, slow-grooving showcase for Garrett’s soprano saxophone — which Svoy transforms into a synthlike, electric-guitar timbre through electronics. “Ladies” underscores the pure, perfect, crystalline sound Garrett can achieve, as well as his preternatural gift for earworm melody. (It also includes another of his spot-on Miles impressions.) “I love melodies,” he says. “I can create melodies any time of the day.” He borrows a beloved tune for the next track, a swirling, drum-and-bass-fueled take on Rodgers & Hart’s “My Funny Valentine.” An intensely meditative outro leads into the project’s closer, “Convergence,” boasting yet another of those unshakeable, pop-worthy melodies that Garrett delivers with sparkling authority.

Throughout Who Killed AI? Svoy’s tracks demonstrate a mastery akin to Garrett’s on his saxophones: technically brilliant but fun and accessible, with a rare ability to pay homage to music history on his own terms. In Svoy’s case that means evoking everything from Giorgio Moroder’s eurodisco to Jan Hammer’s electronic soundtracks to ’90s electronica and today’s stadium-packing EDM.

Throughout all of it, Garrett is completely at home, arguing that the best way forward in this age of AI is to harness technology in the name of human creativity. “Svoy trusts in me, and I trust him,” Garrett says. “That’s what makes this a special relationship.” Garrett plans to tour this material in a live project billed as Kenny Garrett’s Who Killed AI?

“I think my fans will find this interesting,” he continues. “Some people forget that my teacher was Miles Davis. So for me, it’s not that I have to do something different. It is just something that I do. All you have to do is present the music and let them take the journey.”