Saxophonist Kenny G's warm, melodic fusion of pop instrumental and smooth jazz sold over 75 million records over the course of a two-decade career, making him the most successful instrumental performer in modern history. After near a decade as a sideman for Barry White and Jeff Lorber, among others, he became a platinum-selling artist with a string of solo albums for Arista that established him as a contender in several markets, including smooth jazz, R&B and contemporary pop. Kenny G's defining moment came with 1987's Duotones and its lead single, "Songbird," which sold over 12 million copies, with subsequent releases like Breathless (1992) and The Moment following suit. But his reign over the smooth jazz genre was tempered by strong, often fierce criticism that painted his music as weak easy listening material and undeserving of the jazz label. The brickbats continued unabated into the new millennium, which found Kenny G the 25th best-selling artist in America. Variations on his basic sound, like touches of Latin with Rhythm and Romance (2008) and R&B on Heart & Soul (2010) failed to break his grip on the jazz market, and his notoriety even translated into semi-humorous collaborations with Weezer and Katy Perry, among other pop performers. Though loved and hated with equal fervor by a legion of music fans, Kenny G's incredible sales figures and enduring popularity did much to dismiss critical perception of his work and underscore his ability to reach a mass market through the jazz idiom.
Born Kenneth Bruce Gorelick on June 5, 1956 in the Seward Park neighborhood of Seattle, WA, he discovered the saxophone after seeing a musician play one on the "Ed Sullivan Show" (NBC, 1948-1971). By the age of 10, he was taking lessons on the instrument while playing along with albums by Grover Washington, Jr., whose soulful, creamy tone had a tremendous influence on Kenny G's own career. While serving as first chair with his high school jazz band, he was also moonlighting as a sideman for Barry White's Love Unlimited Orchestra, and continued to play for other professional musicians as an accounting student at the University of Washington. Upon graduation, Kenny G played with the Seattle funk band Cold, Bold & Together before joining fusion bandleader Jeff Lorber in 1979. He remained with Lorber until 1982, when Arista president Clive Davis signed him to a contract with the label. He was an immediate success with his eponymous solo debut, which reached No. 10 on the Billboard jazz albums chart. Its follow-up, G Force (1983), generated a Top 40 hit on the R&B/Hip-Hop singles chart with "Hi, How Ya Doin'?" while also reaching No. 6 on the jazz charts and his first entry on the Billboard albums chart, where he peaked at No. 62. A third effort, Gravity (1984), was a slight underperformer, reaching only No. 13 on the jazz charts, though it also landed a Top 40 R&B/Hip-Hop track with "Love on the Rise" in 1985.
Kenny G transitioned from jazz player to mainstream music star with his fourth album, Duotones (1987). Anchored by its lead single, "Songbird," which rose to No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, the album eventually sold over eight million copies and established him as the leading smooth jazz artist in the industry. Its successor, the Grammy-winning Breathless (1992), continued his winning streak by selling over 12 million copies in the United States alone, which made him the best-selling instrumental performer in popular music history. His first Christmas album, Miracles (1994), debuted at the top of the Billboard 200, while The Moment (1997) provided him with his first No. 1 on the dance charts with a remix of the single "Havana" that same year. But with his momentous rise to the top of the music business also came a tidal wave of criticism for his adherence to the often-soporific nature qualities of the smooth jazz movement, as well as a perceived lack of depth and nuance to his work. In 2000, he was the subject of a scathing critique by jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, who took him to task for a 1999 rendition of "What a Wonderful World" which incorporated Louis Armstrong's original vocals into its mix. By the new millennium, Kenny G was among the most polarizing figures in music, equally loved and loathed by millions of music listeners.
While some viewed his 1998 album Songs in the Key of G, which offered his renditions of classic jazz standards like "'Round Midnight, as an attempt to regain credibility in the eyes of critics and hardline jazz fans, Kenny G was also quick to return to his signature sound with Faith: A Holiday Album that same year and his first Greatest Hits release, both of which achieved platinum sales. However, subsequent releases showed a marked decline in his fortunes, with 2004's At Last. The Duets Album, which partnered Kenny G with Barbra Streisand, Gladys Knight and Burt Bacharach, among others, only reaching No. 40 on the Billboard 200, though it topped the contemporary jazz chart. The Latin-themed Rhythm and Romance (2008) was a return to the Top 20, while its follow-up, Heart & Soul (2010), reaped both a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Instrumental Album and the top slot on the jazz chart. Kenny G also continued to mine extraordinary sales with his greatest hits and holiday compilations, which consistently topped the jazz charts between 2002 and 2006. In 2003, he was named the 25th highest-selling artist in America by the Recording Industry Association of America. With few places to go creatively in the wake of his incredible success, Kenny G began branching out in the late 2000s with a string of curious but credible collaborations with pop and rock artists. He teamed with Weezer for a 2009 promotional performance for their album Raditude, then appeared in the music video for Katy Perry's single "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)" in 2011. That same year, he appeared with the alternative rock act Foster the People for a performance of their single "Houdini" in an episode of Saturday Night Live (NBC, 1975- ).
By Paul Gaita