Alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett has plied his trade with Duke Ellington, hard-bopping Art Blakey, and fusion-era Miles Davis--and even in this age of sharply compressed history, that's a helluva gamut. But the time spent with Miles makes the difference: Garrett, who's only a year older than arch-neoclassicist Wynton Marsalis but sounds decades fresher, emerged from Davis's crucible with his focus tightened and his methodology loosened. You can hear this in the combination of precise phrasing and expansive song structures that has increasingly marked Garrett's music in the 90s. Songbook (Warner Brothers), his latest, came out in '97, offering an assortment of lively originals highlighted by his almost sculptural alto sound, which bears traces of Jackie McLean's bitter-almond timbre. It's one of the strongest records in recent years--a testimonial to Garrett's ability to navigate the mainstream without running aground in the 1950s. Nonetheless, his previous disc, Pursuance--his tribute to tenor and soprano saxist John Coltrane that wedded Garrett's alto to Pat Metheny's lush guitar--made the bigger splash. Since the 60s a number of alto men have attempted to yoke their throaty sound to Coltrane's forceful muse, with mixed results; but when someone pulls it off, you can hear why so many keep trying. Garrett doesn't just wear Trane like a sport coat; the spirit of Trane's music infuses Garrett's without constraining it or fostering imitation. Even the sinuous knots that occasionally cluster in Garrett's improvisations--also a Coltrane trademark--unravel in directions of his own making. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 and 10 PM, next Friday and Saturday, August 14 and 15, 9 and 11 PM, and next Sunday, August 16, 4, 8, and 10 PM, Jazz Showcase, 59 W. Grand; 312-670-2473. NEIL TESSER
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Gene Martin.