In the last quarter of the 20th century, there was probably no musician—maybe no cultural figure, period—who inspired as much love and as much loathing as Kenny G. The avatar of smooth jazz, a deracinated debasement of a great (maybe the great) American art form, the man born Kenneth Gorelick sold boatloads of albums—his career sales of about 75 million make him the bestselling jazz musician of all time—while also being treated as a punchline, if not a pariah, by critics and the genre’s keepers of the flame. In one memorable screed, the guitarist Pat Metheny called his playing “lame-ass, jive, pseudo-bluesy, out-of-tune, noodling” (and that’s the polite part).
But a funny thing happened in the past 20 years. As the strain of music criticism known as poptimism made its way from contrarian insurgency to dominant ideology, dissing Kenny G’s music started to seem both lazy and passé. That didn’t mean you had to like it, but you had to take it seriously. And that’s what Penny Lane’s documentary Listening to Kenny G, which premieres on HBO on Thursday as part of its Music Box series, does. Lane, who has previously made movies about American scam artists and Satan worshippers, approaches Kenny G with good-natured enthusiasm, even as she convenes a series of sharp-tongued music critics to dissect just where his songs fall short—and why that matters less than it used to. On-screen, Kenny G not only welcomes Lane and her cameras but seems desperate to please them, at one point promising to be “the best interview you’ve ever had.” And he was in a similar mood when he and Lane debuted the film at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, which was when I caught up with them. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Sam Adams: Kenny, I’m curious about why you said yes to this movie. Penny is a well-established documentary filmmaker, but I could see how from your perspective she might also seem like one of the cool kids who like to make fun of you. Did you have any doubts? Were you nervous?
Kenny G: No, I wasn’t nervous at all. No, we had lunch. We got to know each other. I could immediately tell she was kind and responsible and honest, but I knew it wasn’t just going to be a movie of how great a guy I am, even though she came to realize that I am the greatest guy she’s ever met.
Penny Lane: Sure.
Kenny G: But I knew she would have some conflict in there and I wanted that. I wanted an intelligent person to be in charge of this. So it was an easy decision.
Penny, what surprised you about Mr. G?
Lane: Well, I mean, so many things, honestly, like I could go on and on—
Kenny G: Please do.
Lane: Honestly, it was such a joy to make this film and that’s because Kenny’s a joy to be around. I had never made a film about a celebrity before, and I think I had avoided it because I had certain preconceptions about what that would be like. It seemed like it would be really hard, and I’d always be locked in some kind of horrible conflict. Kenny cares about his image, and anyone who’s a celebrity has spent their whole career managing their image, and the idea of fighting with someone about that never seemed fun. So the fact that Kenny and I met and got along—and I think we did have an instant sense of trust—that was really the most surprising part of it. That it was not a torturous experience.
Kenny, I don’t know if you’re the kind of person who still reads reviews, but I don’t think anyone could blame you for skipping over them. Did anything the critics say about you in the movie surprise you?
Kenny G: No, I’ve heard it all before. It didn’t surprise me. It didn’t hurt my feelings. And I like the fact that at the end, you know, the guy that’s just the most vocal about it decides, “Hey, it’s not so bad after all.” I like that. It made me feel good at the end. You know, I saw a smile on his face. He was listening to my music and I thought he probably doesn’t want to say it out loud, especially on film, but he probably really liked it more than he said. I could tell.
One thing that’s really shifted in the past 20 years or so is that more music critics come down on the side that, even if they don’t like your music, they would rather side with the people who like it than with the Pat Methenys of the world.
Lane: I felt the same way when I was making the film. I really felt like the way that people were talking in the ’90s, it’s like, oh my God, what a bunch of snobs. I actually don’t think people in general act that way now, because there is less elitism and less snobbery in the world of cultural critics now than there was then. In the ’90s, we were all so worried about selling out, and no one talks about this anymore. It’s like, “Yes, people would like to have careers and have audiences. What’s the problem?” So I do think there has been a huge shift, and Kenny, the kind of anger that people feel about him is more in the past now. You can see it in who’s cool in culture right now—they all want to work with Kenny. There’s a little bit of historical distance that lets us be relaxed about it.
Kenny G: You can understand, though. I think there’s these jazz guys that feel like, you know, they’ve practiced like I practice—or maybe they don’t even think I practice as much. I’m sure I’ve put in more hours of practicing than any of the guys that are out there, or at least as many. And they probably think I just came along, picked up a sax, played a couple of simple notes and boom, I’m taking all the record sales away from the real, true—
Lane: Right, and you planned to do it.
Kenny G: And I planned to do it. And it was all calculated. I can understand that they would be upset about it, because they were trying to protect what they felt was jazz. It didn’t mean anything to me because I’ve already been around Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie and all the great jazz players. I’ve been around them, doing things with them. So I already saw what happens and it wasn’t what they were saying.
It’s interesting looking at the way your albums have performed over time. You’ve had huge pop hits and ones that did less well, but almost every album you’ve put out since the late 1980s has gone to No. 1 on the jazz charts. So that audience has been very faithful to you.
Kenny G: Yeah.
Lane: The audience has always been with Kenny. There’s really no argument about that. I mean, who do people think are buying these records? Do they think Kenny’s just buying them and putting them in a warehouse to boost his own sales? We were just talking to a critic in Jamaica. And the first question to me was like, “Oh, I had no idea that people didn’t like Kenny. Everyone in Jamaica likes Kenny.”
Kenny G: My music is played—
Lane: —all over the world. People just love Kenny G. It’s really a very small number of people who don’t, but, Sam, it’s most of the people that we hang out with. So we all think that that’s how people think, and it’s like, we’re the weird ones. We are the weird ones who have these ideas about art.
Kenny G: It’s just a few. It really is.
Lane: Just a few people, but the people who think they have the right to tell everyone else what is good. That kind of shit makes me insane. I can’t stand that kind of self-congratulatory belief that somehow your opinions about art are better.
Kenny G: Well, they know better. They know better.
One of the interview subjects in your movie says, “It can’t be that millions of people are just stupid, and Pat Metheny is the smart one.” But critics—and I include myself here—are, as a rule, fairly comfortable with the idea that they’re right and millions of people are wrong.
Lane: Let’s be honest, I think we all have that in us. I’m not excusing myself from that. I’m just as guilty of it, but I think it’s worth pausing sometimes to reflect on the fact that these are just opinions. That’s all.
Kenny, one of the things that’s fascinating to me in the documentary is the footage of you in the studio, where you’re showing how intensely edited your studio recordings are. You’ll literally paste a passage together one note at a time, or even blend different takes of the same note so your tone and phrasing are perfect. How did you arrive at that process, and does it pose a problem for you when you’re trying to play those perfected versions live?
Kenny G: I’ve always wanted to have that kind of control over what I record. Back in the ’90s, we had digital tape for the first time, which meant that you didn’t have to only have 24 tracks. We had 48 tracks, and then I had two 48-track machines together. I needed that because I was always going to go back and forth, back and forth to get my perfect takes. And even that was very, very barbaric compared to Pro Tools. So I love that. I’m not trying to play the perfect take live. The perfect take, when I hear it, is something totally different than when I listen to my live performance. I don’t know how to say it.
There’s a romance to my recordings that hits me, just the way I play a note. That’s what I don’t think these jazz guys really understand—I say jazz guys, but let’s just say the snobs. When I’m playing the melody, the way that I go to that note, and where the vibrato hits, and then how it transitions to the next song, where are the breaths, where’s the tonguing, all of that is really important to me. So when I’m recording the song, I play it, I listen back, I go, “It’s about 80 percent good, but these nuances would take me two weeks to fix in this three-minute song.” That’s what I love so much about [Pro Tools]. But live—live is just play it and it’s awesome. So there you go.
Listening to Kenny G is very much about how the discourse around popular music has shifted in the past few decades, but it’s also just about the relationship that Kenny has with his fans, who obviously don’t care what the critics think. Kenny, what’s the most meaningful thing a fan can say to you?
Kenny G: I guess it would be something like, “We had your music with us when we had this very intimate moment in our family,” whether it’s a loss or a marriage or a love or a breakup. I’ll tell you what it was. And I remember it right now, this just happened recently, this lady came up to me and said, “There’s a song I listened to with my dad. And he recently passed away, and we listened to that song as he was in his last breaths and hours. And that song meant so much to us in our lives. Not just that moment. And so when you play that song, it just brings back so much pleasure to me to think about my father that way.” So that just made me think, OK, great. There’s something about the way I played that melody, all that little stuff I just said before, about the nuances of the vibrato and the tonguing, something about that hit this person like it hit me and that—that means a lot to me.
Lane: And that kind of thing, I just have to say, really is common in Kenny’s fan base. The music that he makes is part of their lives. It’s not just music they like, that they talk about with people. It’s part of their everyday lives and part of these special occasions. And it really does make you feel like all of this arguing is just so beside the point, you know?
Kenny G: And it’s an instrumental. It’s not a vocal that has a message that they connect to. Why does the way that these notes go together hit you in that way? So there’s the magic.