Kenny G Takes An Etiquette Solo

Sax-man Kenny G has a new album out (probably his 14th, but he's lost count). He answers audience questions about too-long songs and too-small tips -- and tells us why 'smooth jazz' isn't edgy enough for him.

Dave Kotinsky / Getty Images Entertainment
Dave Kotinsky / Getty Images Entertainment

Rico Gagliano: Yes, each week, you send in your questions about how to behave, and here to answer them this week is Kenny G. His smooth saxophone sounds have sold over 75 million records. That makes him one of the best-selling musicians of all time, and the biggest-selling instrumental musicians of the modern chart era. He has just released a new album, his fourteenth full-length. Did we count right? Is that right?

Kenny G: I have no idea, actually.

Rico Gagliano: It’s something like fourteen. Over a dozen.

Kenny G: Okay, good. We’ll say fourteen.

Rico Gagliano: Called “Brazilian Nights”, and Kenny, thank you for joining us, sir.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, Kenny, before we get to the new album, in researching your career, we came across this: Your first job, when you were still in high school, was playing for Barry White.

Kenny G: That’s correct. That was my only job.

Brendan Francis Newnam: What is it like, being a teen and working with this king of oversexed, 70s soul music? Or, is the answer in the question?

Kenny G: Is that what he’s known as?

Rico Gagliano: I think so.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Around our office.

Kenny G: Well, I was so young and so green. I was fifteen years younger than anybody else. I didn’t even know what to do with myself. But, I will give you a Barry White story. Years later, years later, I’m at the Soul Train Music Awards. Probably the only white guy within ten miles of the building, and I got an award. I got a Soul Train Music Award, which was obviously very flattering. So, I’m in the bathroom, and there comes Barry White in the restroom, in the men’s room, and he’s at the mirror, washing his hands or something like that, and I’m looking, and I’m going, man… First of all, I didn’t meet him when I was seventeen. I didn’t meet him. No. I was just one of many people. So, he didn’t know anything about me, but I’m thinking, you know, my name’s popular enough, so I’m sure I’m probably on Barry White’s radar at least. So, I walk up to him and I go, “Barry White, if it wasn’t for you, it was my first gig, I was in high school,” and all this stuff. He looks at me and goes, “Hey, that’s great, baby. Hand me a paper towel.” And, that’s it. That was my Barry White experience.

Rico Gagliano: 75 million albums, but that was the highlight of your career right there, right?

Kenny G: That was one of the memorable moments of my career.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Let’s change to this record.

Rico Gagliano: Yeah. First of all, it’s called, as we mentioned, “Brazilian Nights.” We want to believe that it was either recorded or conceived at night, in Brazil.

Kenny G: I’ve been to Brazil a few times, and nothing would please me more than to say yes, but I love bossa nova. I love the rhythm. I loved how the old jazz greats used to do their style of bossa nova, which was cool jazz changes, but still, that sexy rhythm. So, I recorded about five of the original stuff from the 60s, and then I wrote five originals of my own. If you like that vibe, the whole record’s that vibe.

Brendan Francis Newnam: That’s the thing. We have musicians come through each week, and they often give us dinner party song suggestions, and bossa nova has been coming up again and again recently.

Kenny G: What’s great about bossa nova is that you can listen to it very, very intently, because it’s complicated, with the certain changes and all that, or you can just let it ride and give you a vibe. But, it’s not so sleepy, so it’s not so muzak-ish. I don’t even like the word ‘smooth jazz’, because what it’s turned into is so diluted these days. I can’t even stand to listen to some of that stuff, because it’s just so generic.

Rico Gagliano: What do you think has changed?

Kenny G: Okay, this is going to sound like I’m a big [expletive], but I’m not, actually. Let’s say, there should be 25 artists making that kind of music. There are 200 artists making that music. There are so many, and honestly, they are OK. The music’s OK, and it solves the problem of having some background music to just be OK with.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Do you think it’s easier to hide in that genre, Kenny?

Kenny G: Absolutely, a lot easier. Way easier. You just put a little groove in the background, play a few notes on the sax, and the tone doesn’t even have to be that good. If I put that on, I won’t really have to listen to it, and it will just sit there and soothe me. So, when I’m talking about bossa nova, it’s not sitting there, generically being okay. It’s got a lot more depth to it.

Rico Gagliano: But, unfortunately, Kenny, it seems like a lot of our listeners are in need of soothing. They’ve sent in etiquette questions for you to answer. Are you ready for these?

Kenny G: I’m the expert, man. I’m the expert on that stuff. I know everything about everything.


How to handle a solo which goes so long

Brendan Francis Newnam: Then, let’s begin. I think you definitely know that this first question… This was sent in by J.R. in Los Angeles. J.R. writes: “I am all for an awesome instrumental solo in a bigger piece, but I think, when a solo goes on too long, it feels awkward for me, and I would guess it’s awkward for the band mates, too. As a music guy, how do you end a solo, or make someone end it?”

Kenny G: Aha. Good question. I have been known to play long solos.

Rico Gagliano: You have the Guinness Record for the longest sustained note in saxophone history.

Brendan Francis Newnam: 45 minutes, I think, right?

Kenny G: I wouldn’t call that a solo, yeah, but it’s a long note. But, I did it for the purpose of setting a world record.

Rico Gagliano: Still, I feel like maybe you’re the wrong guy to answer this question.

Kenny G: That’s right, I am the wrong guy. What happens is, when I’m playing a solo at my shows, and I’m done, and I want to go to the next thing, I just give a look to the piano player, who was my high school friend, he’s seen me look at him for decades. I just give him a look, and it’s like, “OK, we’re going to the next thing.” But, the guys in my band, I just let them solo as long as they want, actually. They cue me when they’re done with their solos.

Rico Gagliano: In any genre of music, what’s the greatest solo on anything that you remember?

Kenny G: Let’s see. I would say that John Coltrane’s “Giant Step” solo is probably one of the most famous saxophone solos ever. Nobody can play that solo. This is just a once in a lifetime solo. It’s amazing.

Rico Gagliano: But, could he play one note for 45 minutes, though?

Kenny G: No. Absolutely no. That’s my thing. I got that down.


Topping up for terrible tippers

Brendan Francis Newnam: All right. So, we have another question. This one comes from Chris in San Ramon, California. Chris writes: “I dine out with a specific group of girlfriends several times per year. I love their company, until it’s time to pay the check. They are terrible tippers. I have, on several occasions, left extra cash on the pile of money as I was walking out, but I don’t want them to be offended by seeing me pad the tip. Thoughts?”

Rico Gagliano: So, she has to toss in extra to make up for her girlfriends’ cheapness.

Kenny G: First of all, if they’re your girlfriends, you talk to them about it, and you agree on the tip going into the dinner. If you’re really going to do it correctly. And, if they fight you on it, then you say, “OK, I’m going to give more than you guys, and I’m not trying to look like a hero, but I just want to do that.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah. It shouldn’t be a big deal.

Kenny G: If that is a dealbreaker, then get a new set of friends to go out with.

Rico Gagliano: I don’t think that this is a minor thing, frankly. I think it does say something about you as a person, in our society, where it’s just like, I don’t care about the people who serve me.

Kenny G: My tips are ridiculously high.

Rico Gagliano: I would hope so.

Brendan Francis Newnam: It remains to be seen. We have two more questions, and then we’ll find out.

Kenny G: All right, well, good.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Do I understand correctly? You have your saxophone with you in the studio?

Kenny G: It’s in its case. Yeah, I can pull it out if you need something.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Because I was going to say, if Chris, if her friends broke up with her over our advice here, and she’s sad, I was wondering if you could maybe play her a lick that would lift her spirits or something.

Rico Gagliano: The sax is out. I hope our engineer, Jeff, is ready with some reverb.

Kenny G: Chris, I’m going to play something for you right now. This will hopefully make you feel better.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Oh my goodness.

Kenny G: Here it comes, Chris. This is just for you, baby.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You won’t need friends after that, Chris.

Rico Gagliano: Amazing. Brendan Francis Newnam: You could just stay at home, listening. But, thank you for that, Kenny.

Rico Gagliano: Thank you, and we’re going to just take that fifteen seconds and release it as a single, and then we’re out of the business.

Kenny G: That’s great. Hey, listen, if that could make money, that would be awesome. I would never leave the studio. I would be in there all day, raking it in.

Rico Gagliano: Just churning out cash. Kenny G, thank you so much for telling our audience how to behave. It’s been a pleasure.

Kenny G: My pleasure. Just come to my concerts and I do the same thing live.