Kenny Garrett – Pushing the World Away – Mack Avenue MAC1078, 72:06 [9/17/13] ****:
(Kenny Garrett – alto saxophone, soprano saxophone (track 8), arranger, co-producer, chant (track 8), piano (track 10); Benito Gonzalez – piano (tracks 1-3, 5-7, 9, 12); Corcoran Holt – bass; Marcus Baylor – drums (tracks 1-3, 5-6, 9, 12); Rudy Bird – percussion (tracks 3, 5-7, 9), cymbals and gong (track 8); Ravi Best – trumpet (track 3); Vernell Brown – piano (tracks 4, 8, 11-12); McClenty Hunter – drums (tracks 4, 7, 10, 12), vocals (track 6); Mark Whitfield, Jr. – drums (tracks 8, 11); Jean Baylor – vocals (track 9); Carolin Pook – violin (track 10); Jen Herman – viola (track 10); Brian Sanders – cello (track 10))
Saxophonist Kenny Garrett didn’t set out to create a tribute album with Pushing the World Away, his 17th as a leader and third on the Mack Avenue imprint. But during the writing phase, several tunes gradually took shape as homages to friends (some have passed away and others are still here). And in the end, ten of the 12 tracks (all Garrett compositions with one exception) turned out to be conceptually dedicated to people who have meant something or continue to be special in some way to Garrett. Thematically, Pushing the World Away has connections to Garrett’s Seeds from the Underground (2012) and 1997’s Songbook, since both of those records at least partially also paid respect to fellow musicians, friends or family. Like those releases, Pushing the World Away pulls away from expectations, with music which draws from Latin to modal jazz and from classic pop to Eastern/Asian influences.
Garrett was deliberate in utilizing a large ensemble, which helps in various ways on different tunes, to bring his material to life. Credits include three drummers (Mark Whitfield, Jr.; McClenty Hunter, who is in Garrett’s current touring band; and Marcus Baylor, who was on Garrett’s 2002 Happy People) and two pianists (Garrett’s bandmate, Vernell Brown, and former band member Benito Gonzalez; Garrett also contributes keyboards to one piece); plus Corcoran Holt on bass (he’s also in Garrett’s concert group). Percussion; trumpet; wordless vocals; and a string trio also show up. During a rare, online interview, Garrett talks about why he tapped so many musicians and also provides information concerning some of his new compositions.
Garrett opens with two acknowledgments to pianists. The forceful, post-bop jam, “A Side Order of Hijiki,” is expansive and up-tempo. The title refers, not to the Japanese seaweed added to meals, but to how Mulgrew Miller occasionally described Garrett’s saxophone style. Garrett and Miller (who passed away in early 2013) often performed together and were friends for 30 years. According to Garrett, Miller would sometimes say, “I hear you playing that hijiki.” There is a Spanish/Moorish vibe on “Hey, Chick,” which consciously evokes Chick Corea’s My Spanish Heart ambiance. There is stylish, supple interplay between Garrett’s Coltrane-ish blowing (listeners will notice some familiar horn quotes) and Gonzalez’s equally brazen piano chords. Later in the program, both a saxophonist (Coltrane) and a keyboardist (Dave Brubeck) are inspirations for the lengthy title track, which was instigated by both Coltrane’s interpretation of “My Favorite Things” and Brubeck’s “Take Five.” Garrett reaches for the heavens on soulful soprano sax (and cites the Rodgers and Hammerstein melody a few times), while Brown cascades across the keys with McCoy Tyner-esque abandon, while Whitfield and Holt percolate the boiling rhythm. Spiritual chanting from Garrett (who supplies Christian tonality) and Brown (who imparts Buddhist sounds), as well as Rudy Bird’s gong, also support a transcendent tinge.
A Latin foundation filters through two cuts. “Chucho’s Mambo” is a dance-disposed number penned for Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés. Garrett tried to collaborate with Valdés, but couldn’t get the paperwork approved, so Garrett states this is the next best thing. The salsa-seasoned mambo features Bird’s piquant percussion, and Ravi Best’s celebratory-like trumpet. The other track which has a Latin feel is “J’ouvert (Homage to Sonny Rollins),” composed when Garrett was visiting Guadalupe and wanted to devise something with a Caribbean quality. The result purposefully conjures up Sonny Rollins’ well-known “St. Thomas.” The title is Creole for “Carnival” and Garrett, Gonzalez, Holt, Baylor and Bird undeniably induce a street party mood.
Two other highlights include the only cover tune and a set-closing rouser which has two pianists and three drummers. Garrett does a lyrical version of Burt Bacharach/Hal David’s pop standard “I Say a Little Prayer,” (also done by Earl Klugh, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Woody Herman), but furnishes a slightly unusual meter which lends the arrangement a lightly off-kilter demeanor. Garret employed the Dionne Warwick hit as a warm-up for live sound checks when Garrett toured Europe, and it was so well received by venue workers Garrett knew he had to tape this in the studio. Garrett ends with a memorable finale. The swinging “Rotation” does just that. Both Brown and Gonzalez share pianos (just try to pick out each player); while Hunter, Baylor and Whitfield all drum either at once or trade turns (it’s impossible to tell who hits the skins at any one time). Holt is the glue which stays the course, while Garrett twirls on alto and takes the tune to a stimulating conclusion. There’s a lot going on at once, but it’s never chaotic. There’s plenty more to hear, and the whole proceeding is nicely engineered and mixed, with an auditory affection which suits Garrett’s alto and soprano saxes and the acoustic bass and pianos; and there is crispness to the drums and percussion.
TrackList: A Side Order of Hijiki; Hey, Chick; Chucho’s Mambo; Lincoln Center; J’ouvert (Homage to Sonny Rollins); That’s It; I Say a Little Prayer; Pushing the World Away; Homma San; Brother Brown; Rotation.