Fans who turn out for saxophonist Kenny G’s Friday night show at the Waco Hippodrome shouldn’t expect a solid night of mellow jazz, not that there’s anything wrong with that.
It’s just that the saxophonist and his veteran band are seasoned professionals and plan to show off their considerable chops. “(The audience) will be surprised there’s a lot more energy than the ballads and the romantic songs they hear on the radio,” Kenny G explained. “Our musicianship is something we take pride in.”
Kenny G, the professional name of Seattle native Kenneth Gorelick, has built a four-decade career on that musicianship, starting with his early days when his precocious ability on the saxophone enabled him to join Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra as a 17-year-old.
He stepped out on his own in the 1980s, playing in the overlap of rhythm-and-blues and jazz, and his 1986 album “Duotones” drew national attention with more than five million sold. The saxophonist’s smooth, fluid play not only made him a go-to studio player for such singers as Whitney Houston, Natalie Cole and Michael Bolton, but fit well with pop radio.
In 1992, Kenny G’s “Breathless” became the biggest selling instrumental album with 12 million copies sold. Two years later, he won a Grammy Award for the track “Forever in Love” and topped a million copies sold of his first holiday album “Miracles.”
Part of that success, he said, was due to timing. “I came up in the days when pop radio was where people got their music,” he said. “I was one of the few instrumentalists who got played on popular radio.”
Over the next 20 years, the saxophonist would tally more than 75 million in album sales, displaying a range of styles beyond smooth jazz to encompass rhythm-and-blues, Latin, classic and tropical jazz.
While he’s charted songs like “Forever in Love,” “Silhouette” and “Songbird,” his fans are drawn by his sound and musicianship as much as any hit single. With no lyrics to carry emotional content, an instrumentalist has to communicate feeling and emotion through music alone, the saxophonist noted. “It’s all about tempo, mood and dynamics,” he said. “I’m pretty lucky I have a sound that people come out to hear.”
He’s not alone in creating that sound, playing in front of a six-piece band that has backed him for decades. “We’ve had the same guys for the last 30 years and we’ve done thousands of shows together,” he said. “Every show is brand-new and we’re not burned out.”
Kenny G performs some 50 to 60 shows a year, spending much of his spare time with his passions of playing golf and piloting small planes. He’s winding up work on a new album, “New Standards,” for which he wrote original songs in the style of classic ’50s and ’60s jazz.
“Everyone’s played the jazz standards. I don’t want to recreate that but I like the sound of that era,” he explained.