With relatively little fanfare, 41-year-old saxist Kenny Garrett has emerged as one of the more important jazzmen of his generation. Since his move to New York in the early 80s, he's given critics and audiences good reason to expect great things from him--but his trajectory from there to here has been interesting nonetheless, encompassing an unexpectedly wide range of the music's history, from the swing era to late-80s electric fusion. At 18, Garrett went on the road with the Duke Ellington band (then under the direction of Ellington's son), and a couple years later joined the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis orchestra in New York; these gigs gave him a foundation in ensemble playing that most modern players never get, and put him in touch with several of jazz's most inventive veterans. In short order Garrett played in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and in drummer Dannie Richmond's Charles Mingus repertory quintet, thus moving from a swing-based idiom to some of the greatest compositions of the 50s; then came a stint with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, an icon of the Blue Note sound of the 60s. Finally, in 1986 he joined Miles Davis's last electric band--where he stayed until Davis's death in '91--and that association had a profound effect on Garrett's playing: it seemed to simultaneously loosen him up and tighten his focus, and it certainly sharpened his reflexes. Such varied and extended apprenticeships, once commonplace in jazz, rarely occur anymore, and Garrett has made the most of his good fortune: he's created music that blends contemporary rhythms with time-honored swing, the melodic punch of hard bop with the tart phrasing of latter-day fusion. This year's excellent Happy People (Warner Brothers) neatly sums up Garrett's last ten years, as well as his current stature as something between wunderkind and elder statesman: he leads a band of younger musicians, invites guest solos from an older giant (vibist Bobby Hutcherson), and sifts his own broad experience into a deceptively bouncy music full of twisty insights and dark energy. Friday and Saturday, September 13 and 14, 9 and 11 PM, and Sunday, September 15, 4, 8 and 10 PM, Jazz Showcase, 59 W. Grand; 312-670-2473.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kwaku Alston.