It can’t be easy trying to make a name for yourself on the modern jazz scene when said name could be truncated to “the other Kenny G,” but this saxophonist has not only survived, but thrived — thanks to a remarkably original tone and a passion seen far too rarely in today’s mainstream. His fierce new Warner Brothers album “Standard of Language” — and the sharp focus of his perf — suggests his dabbling in new-agey atmospherics and self-consciously modern electronic spelunking is out of his system.
The “language” that Garrett speaks of in the album’s title is the lexicon of hard bop-modern translations of Wayne Shorter and John Coltrane. But unlike his historically minded peers in the Marsalis family, Garrett takes plenty of liberties with his rephrasings.
Garrett stretched the opening “XYZ” nearly to its breaking point, firing off a series of increasingly impassioned tenor salvos, starting with complex treatises and ending up with single, sustained notes that mimicked guttural cries and plaints to heaven above.
Pianist Vernell Brown offered cagey counterpoint, tapping out forceful, simple progressions with Garrett in full flight, and shifting into groove mode — a bit of bossa nova here, a hint of stride there –when the leader backed off a bit.
All four musicians backed off a little too far in a slight, somewhat directionless version of Cole Porter’s “What is This Thing Called Love?,” causing a palpable loss of momentum. Oddly enough, Garrett only seems to get lost when he edges into the middle of the road — a patch he steered well clear of on a set-closing “Ain’t Nothing But the Blues.”
Garrett switched to soprano sax for that slippery tune, waxing wraithlike at first, then segueing into a playful bit of sparring with Brown, who tossed a wry quote from “London Bridge” into one of his solos. By piece’s end, Garrett had seemingly hypnotized himself, blowing more and more softly, until he was simply fingering the keys in utter silence.
The Kenny Garrett Quartet plays the Catalina Bar & Grill in Los Angeles from May 6-11.