Saxophonist, bandleader, and composer Kenny Garrett is a most versatile player, equally at home playing classic blues and rhythm & blues as he is interpreting classic jazz compositions and even fusion. Although Garrett never had the benefit of a college education, that hasn't hurt his career as a jazz musician one bit. He has released a number of critically acclaimed albums and, prior to the birth of his recording career, paid his dues in the jazz clubs in and around his native Detroit.
Garrett's father was a carpenter who played tenor saxophone as an avocation. He got his first saxophone as an eight-year-old and quickly learned the G scale, thanks to his father. He studied with trumpeter Marcus Belgrave and began performing with Mercer Ellington's band before he had finished high school. His first few professional shows were with Detroit-area musicians Belgrave and pianist Geri Allen. He felt he had arrived as a saxophonist when he was asked to join the Duke Ellington Orchestra under the direction of Mercer Ellington. He skipped college and went on the road with the band for the summer and ended up staying with them for three-and-a-half years.
Garrett was raised in the Detroit jazz scene of the '70s, which wasn't nearly as vibrant as it had been a decade earlier. In high school, he had the good fortune to play with organist Lyman Woodard locally in Detroit, but recalls having to travel an hour or two from home to maintain his status as a working musician. He was encouraged to begin writing his own compositions by various members of Ellington's band, and began doing so a short time later. Aside from alto and soprano saxes, Garrett also uses the piano to compose. Prior to his rise under his own name as a bandleader and composer, Garrett had the opportunity to perform and record with Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, and the aforementioned Ellington orchestra.
In 1982, he relocated to New York City, the jazz capital of the world. Garrett made his solo recording debut with Introducing Kenny Garrett on the Criss Cross label in 1984 and then jumped to Atlantic Records, a major label which, at that time, was interested in rebuilding its once glorious jazz legacy. He recorded two notable albums for Atlantic, Prisoner of Love and African Exchange Student.
He began recording for Warner Bros. in 1992, when he released his stunning, critically praised Black Hope. He followed up in 1995 with Triology, and recorded Pursuance: The Music of John Coltrane in 1996. He released Songbook, his first album made up entirely of his own compositions, in 1997. More albums for Warner Bros. followed including Simply Said, Happy People, and Standard of Language.
In 2006, Garrett moved to Nonesuch where he earned a Grammy-nomination for Beyond the Wall. Two years later, he delivered Sketches of MD (recorded at N.Y.C.'s Iridium club) on Detroit's Mack Avenue. Also during this period, he joined the all-star lineup of the Five Peace Band featuring keyboardist Chick Corea, guitarist John McLaughlin, bassist Christian McBride, and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta. The group's Five Peace Band: Live CD (Concord, 2009) won the Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental Album in January 2010.
In 2012, Garrett released his second album for Mack Avenue, Seeds from the Underground, featuring his own group with bassist Nat Reeves, Venezuelan pianist Benito Gonzalez, and Detroit drummer Ronald Bruner. Pushing the World Away followed a year later and featured primarily original compositions along with a cover of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "I Say a Little Prayer." In 2016, Garrett delivered his fourth Mack Avenue recording, Do Your Dance!, which found him exploring all varieties of dance-oriented rhythms from hip-hop and to funk to Latin and beyond. ~ Richard Skelly