Jazz Album of the Week: Saxophonist Kenny Garrett's inspired and inspiring 'Sounds from the Ancestors'
In 1995, the highly respected alto saxophonist Steve Wilson told The New York Times everything you need to know about fellow altoist Kenny Garrett’s approach to playing music. “He’s the first one of us to really encompass the whole tradition of Black music with his sound. You can hear Johnny Hodges, Bird, Sonny Stitt and Maceo Parker in there. And the church and blues are in everything he plays. He’s been able to take all these elements and make them integral to his conception.”
Over 25 years and dozens of Grammy-nominated albums later, Garrett’s approach hasn’t changed. Just take a listen to his latest, Sounds from the Ancestors. The album’s dedicated to his myriad musical influences, a veritable universe that includes seemingly every notable piece of music with ancestral ties to the Americas’ African diaspora.
That’s a lot to take on.
Coming up, Garrett played with Woody Shaw, Freddie Hubbard, Art Blakey, and Miles Davis. He played in Duke Ellington’s Orchestra under Ellington’s son, Mercer. And the Coltrane influence in his compositions is undeniable. A retrospective focusing just on these guys would’ve pleased critics and fans alike.
But for the sake of presenting a complete musical autobiography, Garrett goes further here. That doesn’t mean you’ll have to work hard to find affirmative nods to mentors like Blakey—see the appropriately percussive “For Art’s Sake,” a showcase for drummer Ronald Bruner—or sax idols like Coltrane and Jackie McLean—see “What Was That.” But it does mean that Sounds goes way beyond hard bop hagiography.
Take the album’s opener, “It’s Time to Come Home.” You’re hit immediately with multiple percussionists playing an Afro-Cuban rhythm in six. Perhaps Garrett’s collaborations with famed Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés come to mind—that’s no accident. But, while referential, you’ll notice that Garrett’s eight originals here exist not as honorifics but, rather, are full of their own ideas.
In this case, pianist Vernell Brown, Jr.’s recursive chordal ostinato couples with a playfully antagonistic theme from Garrett that will either have you sharing in the songwriter’s reverence for the rituals of childhood or slowly drive you crazy.
“When the Days were Different” is similarly evocative, but instead of calling you back to childhood, Garrett ushers listeners into an expansive house of worship, where the organ’s always in-tune and the sun always hits the stained-glass windows at just the right angle to ensure the choir is fully illuminated.
Bringing to mind everything that people used to love about Bruce Hornsby/Branford Marsalis partnerships, this one’s totally free of irony, cynicism and self-consciousness. And while its schmaltziness makes it a prime target for gratuitous snark, that’s really just the spiritual emptiness of our contemporary culture talking.
The references to John Coltrane here are several but subtle. You can catch Trane’s polyrhythmic influence on the blistering “What Was That” and a late stretch of “Hargrove,” the appropriately fusiony send-up to late trumpeter Roy Hargrove, digresses into a seemingly impromptu remix of “A Love Supreme.”
But if you’re really looking for the essence of Coltrane in Garrett’s playing, check out the penultimate title track, which struck me as a musical portmanteau of Mongo Santamaria’s version of “Afro Blue” and Coltrane’s, replete with percussionist Pedrito Martinez singing and chanting in the West African language of Yoruban and a contemplative prologue on piano by Garrett himself.
The signature accomplishment of Sounds, though, has to be “Soldiers of the Fields/Soldats des Champs.” At 11 minutes, it’s nearly as long as the Haitian Revolution whose victors it celebrates. But with the great Lenny White playing snare drum with a combination of precision and explosiveness that shouldn’t be physically possible, you’re left wanting more. You won’t find Garrett in any better form either—like L’Ouverture’s soldiers over two centuries ago, he triumphs.