The year 2015 yielded a truly eclectic and impressive crop of outstanding albums spanning all genres and generations of artists, from Justin Bieber to Sleater-Kinney to Madonna. So we’re celebrating some of the biggest records of the year with insightful pieces written by some very special people: musicians.
— The editors of Talkhouse Music
The world, without any kind of psychedelic interjection, insists on repressing its strangeness so that it can maintain its clean self-image. The world is very vain: obsessed with symmetry, success, the utility of effective things. It is, in my opinion, an unsympathetic world we live in — sometimes horrific, though mostly just tedious in ways we tend to tolerate. Like a sociopath, the world is always selling us an idea of itself. When you’re buying headphones, the salesperson isn’t like, “Remember, you might encounter mosquitoes, sirens and wind on a daily basis while using these.” It’s insinuated in the very nature of being here that we will suffer, but the salesperson’s perspective is pain-free. In this sense, society operates on the level of infomercial: a big, dumb, never-ending promise that things in life are great and only getting better.
Although the world continues fundamentally to resist noise and other crude exacerbating factors, many of my favorite composers and thinkers work against this grain. They bring the outside back in, where it’s been germinating all along, allowing those undesirable fumes to commingle with compositional order and play with randomness and diversity in interesting, dynamic ways. Pauline Oliveros developed her concept of “deep listening” by giving privilege to all sound, including non-musical forms, and did so with a real sense of gratitude for the environment. John Cage, of course, elegantly reminded us how loud silence is with 4’33”. These are some of the more famous examples of how musical practices morphed in the 20th century, and we are just scratching the surface of the immensity of such findings — not just aesthetic findings but developments that can impart to us new ideas about being in the world. It’s awesome that simply through the practice of heightening your awareness, secret new artistic languages tend to materialize.
In terms of my own life with music, I tend to think about it in an idealistic, even object-oriented way. Music is intrinsically the history of music, and is constantly being impregnated by social, environmental and phenomenological variables. I use those variables as a jumping-off point to speculate on the secret emotional promise of things, and since most things I’m surrounded by are dumb, I’m constantly interfacing with dumbness on an aesthetic, investigative level. In other words, I try not to experience dumb things in a vacuum but in context, allowing various outside forces to re-animate my environment and seduce me from the malaise of superstructural reality.
I tolerate dumb things sometimes in a kitschy way but mostly in a sort of zen way, wherein stuff is suspended in a myopic ooze of raw nowness that is beautiful and gross at the same time. This exercise is also important to me on a personal level, because it has prevented me from becoming a raging nihilist, which would be unhealthy. It’s also framed my work as a composer and producer a lot. I’m continuously looking for ways to decrypt dumb musical options into something stimulating. I think of them as elusive entities whose pearls are attainable through a belief in myself as an idiosyncratic thing-morphing alien. There are, however, limits to this way of thinking. Not everything in this world is redeemable, much less mutable, and Kenny G’s new album Brazilian Nights is a good example of this. But it still has its place in the world, and I’ll try to explain why.
I had a friend in college who was from the Connecticut suburbs. We’d often drive to his mom’s lavish home on weekends and hang out in the jacuzzi. During one such outing, he signaled toward the tree line at the edge of the property and pointed out to me that Kenny G lived there. Not knowing a lot about Kenny G, other than what he looked like and his maligned reputation as an easy-listening saxophonist, I sat there imagining this man, 100 yards away from me in the still of the night, having some kind of super-weird Bergman-esque domestic meltdown, leading to him on his back deck indulging in some kind of improvisatory saxophone ritual. Pat Metheny notoriously ripped on Kenny G in a diatribe about how he’s not real jazz, but on this night Kenny G would have channeled Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage via competing layers of multiphonic skronk, juxtaposed with a tenderness far beyond even Metheny’s lyrical cooing. I scanned Kenny G’s Brazilian Nights for messages that would help me make sense of that night in Connecticut. Besides the title of the second track, “Corcovado (Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars),” there is really nothing to go on.
For what it’s worth, Metheny accused Kenny G of “musical necrophilia” for overdubbing his middling sax solos on top of dead jazz guys’ records. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy Pat Metheny, but I don’t really think that sanctifying real jazz as authentic, and smooth jazz as fraudulent, is really that interesting a belief system. People should pretty much be allowed to do what they want, artistically. In fact, that’s exactly what gives Metheny the power to develop his own unique perspective. Frameworks of taste rely on dumb and great things to exist in concert with one another. That’s the actual world we live in, one that implies order but still manages to elicit diversity.
Brazilian Nights is Kenny G’s homage to bossa nova music, but the focus remains on Kenny G. He’s constantly soloing, but the solos are pretty one-dimensional and square, and miss the essential curvature and sensuality of the bossa nova style. Occasionally, other members of his ensemble will solo as well, but nothing sets any one thing apart from anything else. Kenny G might be the Olive Garden of music, presenting us with takes on classic dishes that, because they are derived from the same underachieving set of ingredients, never really touch on the essence of the subject matter.
Brazilian Nights is jazzy without being jazz. That seems to be by design, which brings up the first of three smooth-jazz paradoxes I’d like to mention.
Smooth-Jazz Paradox I
Kenny G is marketed as an instrumentalist, which in some way demands that he be listened to on the merits of his personal style, even though he doesn’t really have one.
Smooth-Jazz Paradox II
This is a kind of musical lube that, in actuality, chafes. Easy-listening’s use-value is overwhelmingly articulated in its role as hold music on the phone — you’re meant to feel calm or distracted from your anxiety, even though its smoothness is often striated by low playback quality and erratic exhortations from Company X to keep on holding. I’m actually super into it as a sculptural object but it’s abusive on a practical level.
Smooth-Jazz Paradox III
It’s packaged as romantic music but continuously sounds like satire, presenting readily accepted exotic cliches as face-value empirical truths. I can imagine how Kenny G might have been touched by how sexy and hospitable the women of Rio are (“Menina Moca”), and found himself in awe of the Brazilian countryside (“Clouds”). But his stylings as an ambassador of ubiquity subjugate any local idiosyncrasies and render them global.
I’m sure there are lots of serious jazz records in 2015 I would hate more than this, especially ones that rely on the fallacy that the audience is dumb and therefore enamored with what they cannot possibly comprehend. Jazz like that is made by musical vampires. Kenny G’s jazz sounds more pointless, which is kind of funny. But I have the feeling that, on some level, his records are less harmful than virtuosic vampire jazz.
As with boring patterns on the upholstery of a regional bus, you are forced to acknowledge all the soloing on Brazilian Nights because of its proximity. Though Kenny G is a captain of the obvious (“Girl from Ipanema”), his style doesn’t intrinsically bother me, but the way it reinforces society’s most mediocre traits does. Smooth jazz is a genre that is cloying and ordinary at the same time. There’s nothing else to say. This record is not good, in my view, but the fact that it causes me to question its utility this much reassures me that it is, at least on some level, fascinating, as are most things in this world.
Without explicitly spying on Kenny G, as I tried to imagine from a suburban Connecticut hot tub in 2003, I don’t think his music will ever afford us any kind of insight other than what seems to be a real commitment to being a Casanova.
The second time I listened Brazilian Nights I did notice something kind of curious that I should share with you: at the end of “Corcovado (Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars),” there’s the sound of bubbling water. It’s subtle, but it’s there.
p.s.: I am sorry to say that after I submitted this piece, I learned that it was not Kenny G who lived next door. It was Michael Bolton. :/