Even though it was over 25 years ago, Kenny Garrett will forever be associated with Miles Davis, in whose band he spent several years in the 1980s. Perhaps to spite the collective public mind beneath Miles’ shadow, Garrett has since made a career out of versatility. His latest studio album, the incredible Beyond the Wall, was an Eastern-tinged outing of dense, rich composition; Garrett dedicated it to McCoy Tyner. Last year, the celebrated alto saxophonist released Sketches of MD: Live at the Iridium, a scorching concert set with guest Pharaoh Sanders.
Tonight at Yoshi’s, Garrett, now 49, displayed that trademark versatility with his quartet, playing short melodic duets alongside long, rhythmic barn-burners in a powerhouse set that had the audience on their feet and begging for more even after the house lights came up.
The set began by the thump of the bass drum and a full sixteen bars of funk-break drumming, and it would be easy to say that this set the tone for the night. Yet each player injected a stylistic flourish into the steady gait. Garrett, for example, began by adhering to the bluesy growl that is the trademark of one-chord funk jazz, only to slowly stretch to an aggressive dance around the perimeter of the music, splaying a feisty thread around his band’s patterns like a spider on methamphetamine.
Bassist Kona Khasu plucked out chromatic chord ascensions, warbling slides on the neck and pizzicato grace notes well above the twelfth fret. Johnny Mercier lathered organ and phase-shifted synthesizer together in a wall of texture. Throughout the set, usually climaxing a long, eventual crescendo, all these elements fell into place. Each time it happened, Garrett rocked back and forth playing alternately to the floor and ceiling in a physical manifestation of his personal nirvana, and the effect transcended any dismissive categorization as “funk jazz.”
When Garrett finds available real estate in a song, he drops everything and fills it. Tonight, he halted the proceedings in order to meditate on a feeling several times. The first excursion lasted roughly ten minutes with billowing, sad, evocative saxophone lines unraveling over Mercier’s sci-fi synthesizer oscillations.
The second came at the end of a piano/soprano sax duet—a light, major-key melody reminiscent of an AM soft-rock hit—when Garrett fell away and experimented with acoustics by bleating quick, sharp Eastern-tinged lines which resonated inside the grand piano and echoed in the back of the club. The William Tell Overture was quoted, some prominent overtones overtook the dominant tones and Garrett drained out his horn, like a bike tire deflating.
The night ended with a full-on funk scorcher, complete with teaser endings and solicitations from Garrett himself for more noise from the crowd. Not that solicitations were needed—the crowd was on their feet and cheering for more even after the band had blown their final note, fist-bumped each other and left the stage. Cheering for more, in fact, even after the house lights came up.
Chances are that when Kenny Garrett comes back next year, he’ll be on some different tip entirely, with different sidemen. This band, transcending prescribed pockets, is worth catching while it lasts.