By Jonathan Widran

In 1994 when Clive Davis, the famed music industry executive who was then head of Arista Records, approached Kenny G about recording a Christmas album, the multimillion-selling saxman balked. Coming off the historical success of Breathless, G’s 1992 release that is now the bestselling instrumental album of all time––representing a solid percentage of the 75 million albums, singles and videos he’s sold since launching his solo career in 1982––the idea seemed like a no-brainer. But there was one small personal hurdle to overcome.

“I asked Clive how I could do it, because I’m Jewish!” he says. “Clive’s Jewish too and said, ‘Don’t worry about it, the biggest holiday song of all time is ‘White Christmas,’ written by Irving Berlin, who shared our heritage.’ I’m so glad he convinced me. I found the melodies so beautiful and timeless, and was immediately up for finding unique ways to interpret these beloved songs. I decided the best approach was not to start with some sort of grand concept, like jazz, swing or blues, but just let the songs determine how we might arrange them. I liked the way Miracles came out, so I wasn’t that surprised when it was successful.”

“Successful” is a massive understatement for what has become one of contemporary instrumental music’s most popular franchises. Miracles: The Holiday Album, which featured “The Chanukah Song,” an original tune inspired by Kenny Gorelick’s own faith tradition, became the top-selling Christmas album ever (eight times platinum and counting) and inspired two hit follow-ups: the triple-platinum-selling Faith: A Holiday Album and gold-selling Wishes. This year, Arista has released The Greatest Holiday Classics, a collection featuring 10 songs from those three discs, plus sparkling new arrangements of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” “My Favorite Things,” “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Jingle Bells.”

With four of these projects now in the bins, is G, who will celebrate the season with Lyndie, his wife of 15 years, and their sons Max (age 12) and Noah (age 8), all Christmassed out?

“I think after the first one was so popular, the next was a slam dunk,” he says. “Then, after a while, it was kind of exciting to think about how many more songs there were that I hadn’t done. People think it’s easy to do these, just pick some songs, throw together arrangements and record them. But actually, my producing partner Walter Afanasieff and I have done tons of research, listening to hundreds of songs and trying to figure out what will work and what won’t. For the new album, we originally did ‘My Favorite Things’ with a live band, but ultimately we tossed that version for one where I’m backed by synthesizers. I’m sure if someone heard it, they’d probably like the first version, but we didn’t feel the right magic. I’ve really enjoyed the challenges of this creative process.”

Davis threw another first-time challenge at G in 2004, presenting him with an all-star duets idea, similar to the concept that reaped multiple Grammy Awards and millions of sales when the executive did it with Santana’s Supernatural in 1999. At Last...The Duets Album matched the sax great on familiar pop tunes from various eras with vocal and instrumental legends alike, including Barbra Streisand, LeAnn Rimes, Gladys Knight, Burt Bacharach, Chaka Khan, Daryl Hall, David Sanborn and Arturo Sandoval. His hit duet of Outkast’s “The Way You Move” with Earth, Wind & Fire helped At Last cross over to Billboard’s R&B chart and sell gold “out of the box.”

While G loves the fact that this project moved him out of his usual safety zone where the soprano (and on occasion, the tenor) carries the melody and he has the last word production-wise, he’s not sure he’d be up for such an endeavor again any time soon.

“There was a downside and upside to doing At Last,” he says. “It’s the first time I let go of a lot of the control I’m used to on my records. Working with Walter, I’m usually involved hands-on in everything—the compositions, production, arranging. I have the final say-so and it’s finished. But here, it wasn’t finished till Clive gave his final approval. My original thought was, if I want to make a record that’s different, I need to step back and let someone else run the show. But I had to replay a lot of the solos when they weren’t what he wanted to hear. That was tough, but on the other hand, I enjoyed being pushed to come up with something better. I loved it all in the end, but giving up the control was very hard. Then again, anyone who likes improvising knows the importance of being flexible.”

Another upside G gained from At Last was great critical acclaim–– something that’s often been lacking no matter how many millions he’s sold since Duotones and its pop hit “Songbird” broke through at the dawn of the smooth jazz format in 1987. No pan or harsh critique from the media, however, will ever top the vitriolic, expletive-laden public statement that Pat Metheny let fly (originally posted on the guitarist’s website) when the saxman decided to do an “Unforgettable”-like duet with the voice of the late Louis Armstrong on his album Classics in the Key of G.

Over the years, G has always been very philosophical about balancing his incredible appeal to millions of pop music fans with the negative things written about his music; his high road response to Metheny followed suit in this manner. “When I got a copy of the Metheny thing, I thought there was no way he would publicly say something like that, so it had to be a joke,” G recalls. “I had my manager contact his, and when we confirmed that it was real, I remember being very disappointed. I wrote an e-mail to Pat, which he never answered, saying that regardless of how one artist feels about another, it’s not right to use the public domain to voice that opinion. How can one artist judge another, whose work has validity and substance to so many? Those kinds of responses are usually based on insecurity and jealousy, and I’m still not sure why he did it.

“But,” he continues, “I’ve been making records now for 24 years and I’ve seen a wide spectrum of responses to my music, so nothing really surprises me. The more popular you get, the more people both love and hate you. When I did my first solo albums in the early ’80s and was playing little clubs, they called what I did cutting edge. When ‘Songbird’ exploded, the style was new to people and I was booked at great festivals like Montreux and Nice and sharing bills with Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Wynton Marsalis. The album reviews were good, but the minute they started selling bigger, it was, ‘Wow, he’s gone commercial, it’s elevator music.’ Saying that about the exact same songs and style! When you’re new and undiscovered, they love you. When you’re famous, they want to bring you down.”

G, an avid golfer since he was 10 years old (he was on his high school’s golf team) equates it to the ups and downs of the game he loves: “There are good bounces and bad, sometimes you make birdies and sometimes bogeys. If you get too happy about your birdies, the bogeys will bring you down even further.”

When he’s not making music or engaged in daily saxophone practice, he balances his loves of golf (he plays almost every day when not recording or on tour) and skiing with being a typical family man and devoted father to Max, who plays guitar, and Noah, who plays piano. The Gorelicks did a lot of traveling in 2005, including trips to Wales and Scotland and an incredible two-week safari in Kenya which required everyone to get four inoculation shots each. They plan to vacation in Japan this next year.

“The truth is, I’m burnt out on travel professionally,” he says, “but the same way I am with everything else, I want to be the best dad in the world, and I want to give my kids incredible life experiences and spend as much time with them as possible. They are so important to me and give me such a unique perspective of the world. Being a celebrity has given me a unique backstage pass to the world, in a sense, but that’s only made me a more educated and compassionate person. I want to make sure I pass those things on to Max and Noah. Making these Christmas albums has brought me more in touch with the importance of putting my family first and being grateful for all I have.”

For more information on Kenny G, including his current tour schedule, visit his website at www.kennyg.com.

Discography:
1982 Kenny G  Arista
1984 G-Force  Arista
1985

Gravity

Arista
1986 Duotones Arista
1988 Silhouette   Arista
1989 Kenny G Live Arista
1992 Breathless Arista
1994 Miracles: The Holiday Album Arista
1996 The Moment Arista
1997 Greatest Hits Arista
1999 Classics in the Key of G Arista
1999 Faith: A Holiday Album Arista
2002 Paradise Arista
2002 Wishes   Arista
2004 At Last...The Duets Album Arista
2005 The Greatest Holiday Classics   Arista

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