It was a cold, blustery Seattle eve, but the night looked hopeful as my dad and I had tickets to go see Kenny Garrett – a renowned alto saxophonist whose recent album, “Beyond the Wall,” has been Grammy nominated. Though I’ll admit, beyond reading the brief description on the venue website, my actual experience with Garrett’s sound was nil.
After a burger and beer at a joint nearby, my pops and I scooted over to Jazz Alley, a huge venue that is magically (true to its name) tucked away in a rather inconspicuous downtown alleyway. We take a seat in a cozy booth on the first floor, not 20 feet from the stage. Our waitress is a spectacularly interesting and kind person – a Boston native who did photography for the Thelonious Monk Institute – and with her guidance we decide to split a 750 mL bottle of a dark Belgian abbey ale brewed by a company that contributes to the Institute.
Following an hour or so of personal, insightful conversation with my dad – which is rare as we often digress into our frustrations with the sorry state of our nation – the lights dim, and the quartet takes the stage.
The opening is explosive, with Garrett testing the very limits of his range, the drummer pounding out his soul as his face shows agony and ecstasy, the pianist slamming the keys with graceful ferocity, and the bassist strumming like a contented schoolchild who knows he’s done it this time. The audience is entranced – a man jumps up and dances spaztically at the corner table, while others sit motionless in awe of the energy that spills out from instruments and speakers. All I can do is grin like an idiot, amazed beyond words at the enthusiasm of these master musicians. Pausing as he listens to the other band members’ solos, Garrett taps the back of his instrument with his thumb, reading the notes like a code, waiting for the perfect moment to unleash again.
Throughout the rest of the set, Garrett shows his softer side, finessing the alto with the tiniest puffs of breath, creating music that is both beautiful and crushing. His improv style at times feels mad, but every piece lays on top of a subtle structure. At one moment I found myself so enticed by the sound I wanted to hold it somehow – on CD, mp3, whatever – but looking into the eye of the sax I knew that there would never be a set like this, never a moment like this, nothing besides the memory that I could truly carry with me. It was a moment of Satori. And right then, all I could see was Kenny Garrett, blowin’ away.
After all was said and done, I was lucky enough to shake the sweaty palm of drummer Jamire Williams and thank bassist Nat Reeves. I saw Kenny, but was careful not to interrupt him as he spoke (in impressive Japanese) to a group of Japanese men. Garrett has apparently put a lot of his soul into Asia, as evident through his music, which evokes folk songs from both Korea and Japan, and incorporates traditional Tibetan Buddhist chants.
My dad and I rode home, both feeling awe-struck, through the new winter landscape that had settled around Puget Sound. Though it was 10 at night, kids were out sledding on neighborhood hills, taking full advantage of the six inches (and rising) of fluffy powder. Getting out of the car, there was the unique silence that only comes when snow has freshly fallen. I inhaled and took in the moment slowly, knowing that it would soon be gone.