Although saxophonist, bandleader, and composer Kenny Garrett never had the benefit of a college education, that hasn't hurt his career as a jazz musician one bit. Garrett has released a number of critically acclaimed albums for the Warner Bros. label and, prior to the birth of his recording career, earned his master's degree 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 1970s, 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 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.
Since then, his other releases have included Simply Said, Happy People, and Standard of Language, all for Warner Bros.; 2006's Grammy-nominated Beyond the Wall on Nonesuch; and the 2008 live outing (recorded at N.Y.C.'s Iridium club) Sketches of MD, issued by Detroit's Mack Avenue label. In addition, Garrett joined the all-star lineup of the Five Peace Band -- spearheaded by keyboardist Chick Corea and guitarist John McLaughlin and also featuring bassist Christian McBride and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta -- for touring and recording during the late 2000s; the group's Five Peace Band: Live CD (Concord, 2009) won the Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental Album in January 2010. Garrett has proven to be a most versatile player, equally at home playing classic blues and rhythm & blues as he is interpreting classic jazz compositions and even moving in a fusion direction. As a composer himself, his full potential may still lie ahead, with more bright moments in the offing in the recording studio and on-stage for this talented arranger, composer, musician, and bandleader. Garrett recorded the all original Seeds from the Underground with his own group -- bassist Nat Reeves and Venezuelan pianist Benito Gonzalez -- and utilized the talents of drummer Ronald Bruner from Detroit. The album was issued in the spring of 2012. ~ Richard Skelly