Kenny Garrett: 'Beyond the Wall'

Kenny Garrett.

hide captionKenny Garrett.

Saxophonist Kenny Garrett talks with Tony Cox about his attempts to marry Asian music with jazz on his latest CD, Beyond The Wall.

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TONY COX, host:

If this jazz music sounds a bit Asian, that's because it comes from someone with a longtime interest in Asian culture - Kenny Garrett. But it was only after he went to China recently that the saxophonist decided he was ready to compose a complete album about his experiences in the Far East. That CD is called Beyond the Wall.

Kenny Garrett stopped by our studios to talk about it, and how his fascination for Asian recently intensified.

Mr. KENNY GARRETT (Musician): Well, it actually first started when I was traveling to Europe, and I remember hearing someone saying to me that Americans were lazy and they didn't know any languages. So I decided that I was going to grab a tape and a book and learn Japanese.

Through the language and the culture, I got into the music. And through the music - I checked out the Japanese music, so I wanted to check out the Korean music. So after checking out the Korean music, I just said, well, I decided I need to go to the source. I'm going to go to the Chinese music. And that kind of led me to the Chinese.

So from trying to learn Japanese, it led me through all these different cultures.

COX: You know, you have said that you wondered whether or not you could connect the spiritual aspects of Africa and China in music. And I suppose that Beyond the Wall is your way of doing just that - your newest CD.

Mr. GARRETT: Well, that's definitely my interpretation of that. You know, I remember reading books on African health and Chinese health, and they were very similar. And I was like, wow, I wonder if that correlation is part of the music.

I have a Chinese book that I practice on my saxophone. And I noticed that the rhythms were different, but it was still the same pentatonic scale. So I said it must be some way to do that, and then I started experimenting with it.

(Soundbite of song, Beyond the Wall)

COX: The title cut on here, Beyond the Wall, and here's what struck me about it. I read that you actually wrote this tune before you had ever been to mainland China. That right?

Mr. GARRETT: That is true. You know, it was always a - I mean, even when I was a kid, it was always a dream of mine to go to China. And in 2005 I went to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao. And I remember meeting someone in Macao who was from mainland China.

The Chinese guy walked up to me and said, how you doing, brother? I said, wow, that's interesting. And so I said that year I have to go to China. I had always been thinking about it anyway, but then it was something that was really pushing me to go.

But I wrote this song in the hopes of getting there somehow. The tune, even though it was written way before I started, you know, working with the rest of the music, that was really the incentive.

(Soundbite of song, Beyond the Wall)

COX: Here's my question as we hear this tune behind us. Did it connect? You know, you wrote about something that you hadn't actually experienced or seen. And now that you actually did go there and see it and feel it and go to the top of the Great Wall, did the song - did it work like you wanted it to?

Mr. GARRETT: The song definitely got me to China, that's for sure. You know, even the Great Wall, when I was there it was in December and it was cold outside. So I was thinking, well, maybe not this time going to the Great Wall. But once I got there it was so beautiful and overwhelming, I mean I would say that, you know, I'm just so happy that I actually experienced that even though I put myself through a lot to get to China.

You know, what I mean by that, I went there for three weeks with the intent of trying to learn the language. And you know you can't learn Chinese in three weeks. And trying to, you know, hear some opera in traditional Chinese music just to give me a reference.

(Soundbite of song, Beyond the Wall)]

(Soundbite of song, Marching Towards the Light)

Unidentified Men: (Chanting) (Foreign Language Spoken)

COX: There's another song on here called Marching Towards the Light. One of the many things that's interesting about this one is that it includes this Tibetan monk chant. Tell us how you got to that.

Mr. GARRETT: Well, you know, a friend of mine is bassist Nat Reeves, had given me a CD probably about five years ago. And he knows that I like a lot of different sounds of music. He said, well, you'll figure out what to do with this CD, and I didn't think anything about it.

And so I remember I had tried this sketch of something. And when I started writing, I said, remember that chant you were working with? I kind of just pulled out the tape and I just started working on it. And I just took a snippet of it and, you know, tried to create some music just for people to try to focus, you know, for a second.

You know, and that's really the premise of Beyond the Wall, is for people to reflect on the creator. You know, I figured if I could hold them for the first five songs - even though I know I should be able to hold them longer - but if you give me the first five songs, I figure it could pull them in enough for people to reflect.

Because there's so many things that are happening, you know, in society today that it, you know, we lose our focus.

(Soundbite of song, Marching Towards the Light)

Unidentified Men: (Chanting) (Foreign Language Spoken)

COX: You know, you talk about the creator. Are you a practicer of any Eastern religion?

Mr. GARRETT: No. I'm just a person of who's trying - who's on a spiritual journey, trying to, you know, define the truth. I'm a person of studying. I'm still studying and trying to find the truth.

(Soundbite of song, Marching Towards the Light)

COX: What would you say struck you most about your experiences in Asia, particularly in China, musically and spiritually? How has that changed you, Kenny Garrett, as a person?

Mr. GARRETT: Well, I think the things that, you know, because China has such rich history, I was, you know, the philosophy was similar to my philosophy. And I was thinking, wow, I have to get to China to see that. And once I got to China, I realized that people are really all the same. You know, when I travel to Japan and to Africa and to India and to, you know, to China, I found that people - after you get beyond the language barrier or the culture barrier -everybody wants the same thing: to be loved and have stability in their life.

COX: Are you wearing Eastern-style clothing now?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GARRETT: Well, sometimes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GARRETT: Sometimes I am wearing them. It kind of varies, but, you know, if you see me, sometimes I do.

COX: Kenny Garrett, great saxophonist. Thank you very much for being with us. His latest recording may be his most far-reaching to date. It is called Beyond the Wall. Kenny, thanks again for being with us.

Mr. GARRETT: Thank you, Tony.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: Thanks for joining us. That's our program for today. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS AND NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: I'm Tony Cox. Ed Gordon will be back tomorrow. This is NEWS AND NOTES.

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  • Album: Beyond the Wall
  • Artist: Kenny Garrett
  • Label: Nonesuch
  • Released: 2006
 

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