IT’S EASY TO RECOGNISE Kenny G. Since he first started playing on stage (as a backup instrumentalist for the vibrating baritone of Barry White) at the age of 17, those copious curls on his slender frame have made for an instantly recognisable silhouette. This was no less the case when he played to a packed house at China Rouge, Galaxy Macau.
“It’s my first time here, though I’ve been to Macau a few times before,” he says, standing back and staring at the club’s lavish decor. “I like it; it’s beautiful. I like how you can actually see the audience.”
Kenny G is well acquainted with being content. He is a Guinness Record Holder of two titles: his sixth studio album, Breathless, is the best-selling instrumental album of all time, with more than 15 million copies sold, while his first holiday album, Miracles, sold over 13 million copies, making it the most successful Christmas album to date. These are records he plans to retain.
“When I did the albums, I never thought I was out to set world records. It sort of just happened,” he says. “I think Bill Clinton mentioned my name and album during some press event, and suddenly sales shot up. The world record…it’s a nice title to have. And strangely, I know I can keep that record for a while, as people don’t buy CDs anymore. It’s all downloaded, isn’t it?”
Indeed it is. So much has changed since young Kenneth Bruce Gorelick kicked off his hugely successful career as a contemporary jazz saxophonist. Although he’d been performing on stage since he was a teen, it was his fourth album, Duotones (1986) that brought him breakthrough success.
“I was watching television and saw some saxophonist perform, and I thought, I want to do that. Though I had a fine teacher, and supportive parents, it was something in me that made me want to practise – I was never forced to practise a lot, like most teenagers are,” he says.
Famously, he wasn’t chosen to be a member of his high-school orchestra. “Oh I’m not bitter about it – I really just wasn’t good enough. I went for auditions and didn’t get selected. Then I went back home, worked really hard and suddenly, one day, it just hit. When I auditioned again, I got first chair.”
Since then, he’s never looked back. One of the few instrumentalists who are truly famous the world over, Kenny G, now 56, has performed with some of the biggest names in the business, having collaborated with Andrea Bocelli, Whitney Houston, Natalie Cole, Michael Bolton, Céline Dion, Frank Sinatra and many more. In the process he’s become the very picture of the consummate musician. “I always enjoy performing live, it’s always fun,” he says. “In the beginning I used to get nervous, but now I tell myself they’re here for me; I need to enjoy it so they will too.”
Although this is his nth performance this year, there are some shows that he has never forgotten. “My first ever performance on stage was with Barry White. I was 17 and it was super fun. He didn’t really talk to me…at all. I was a young kid and one of many musicians on stage as backup. Now, I know I get better billing, but that first time, I’ll always remember.”
Is there a camaraderie between musicians today? “No…I think that’s a myth. They’ve all been perfectly fine but this buddybuddy, we’re-all-brothers bit doesn’t really exist. At least, not that I’ve found. Kenny G famously had something of a tiff with legendary music producer Clive Davis back in the ’80s. “With Clive, look, we had lots of good times, we had lots of bad times. He has lots of ideas and not all of them work for every artist. The hard part of Clive Davis is or was that he was super successful, so he’s got a lot of confidence. He would think his ideas were perfect every time. But what works for Rod Stewart doesn’t work for me, or what’s appropriate for my instrumental sounds.”
At this point, Kenny G perhaps senses a note of discord and changes tack. “They were healthy disagreements, sometimes heated. But I will say this about Clive: he pays attention. When he was really paying attention to me and my sound, he was really helpful, truly great. He was paying attention to rap [in the late ’80s], and he didn’t know what to do with me any more,” he adds with a laugh. “But we’re fine now.”
On a recent collaboration with Katy Perry, G finds relevance in a new digital age, an era characterised by the perpetual hunt for the new and the young. “Well, working with Katy was great fun. I was asked whether I’d like to work with her and one assumes someone on the other side actually likes the work, or one doesn’t get asked. I was asked.”
With more than 70 concerts each year, and his current 90-day touring schedule, Kenny G and his smooth jazz have been heard live in most corners of the planet – but he’d dearly like to take his two teenage sons, back in LA, with him on tour. “My sons play guitar and piano. And I’d love to have them accompany me – be it on travels or on stage. We’ve all performed together before and it has been very special. I wanted them to come to Asia, but school and exams and homework have kept them away.”
And are they aspiring to go pro like their father? “I’m not sure. They haven’t shown interest in following in their dad’s footsteps but they’re still young. They want to play and do their school work – they get really good grades and I’m very proud of them. I really wanted them to come with me but they’re focused.”
While he encourages music in his progeny, he says he never pushes. “I don’t believe in pushing – as I was never pushed. Encouraged, yes, but there was no pressure,” he says. “My son who plays the guitar, I see sparks there. He works hard, practises hard, so you never know.”
But when it comes to spotting talent, Kenny G is no novice: “Well, I have no influence on her career, but a long, long time ago I first saw Mariah Carey perform, and she had that extra something and I knew she’d go far. This was way before she became internationally famous. She’s worked hard to achieve all that she has – nowadays, with so many musical reality TV shows, fame seems to be more instant. We earned our stripes – and have had long careers for it.”
And how about those curls? “You know, even Michael Bolton cut his hair…” I suggest.
“Yeah, I never did. The hair works for me,” says the musician with a laugh.