Kenny Garrett-Alto Saxophone Modernist

Kenny Garrett-Alto Saxophone Modernist

When Kenny Garrett plays the alto saxophone, the Saxophone God’s smile broadly.  Kenny conjures up the spirits of all the great alto saxophonists before him, and continually reinvents his own voice to fit the context.  Bird, Gary Bartz, Sonny Stitt and Cannonball Adderley all find a home in Kenny’s playing, and yet Kenny has managed his entire career to bring something new and vital to all his work.  Propelled to stardom by his stint with Miles Davis, Kenny had quite a run working with the last of Miles’ great working bands. 

A good look at Kenny Garrett’s career can be found here at Wikipedia……

The first glimpse of Kenny Garrett for a lot of jazz minded people was through Out Of The Blue, a band of hand picked young lions that recorded for Blue Note.  Established in 1984, their Wikipedia entry can be found here…..  A favorite track of mine is Git In There from 1986’s OTB release.  This tracks rocks with a roaring drum solo that starts the piece, and then the band kicks in sporting some serious attitude, copping the Blue Note sound of the 1960s’ that made Hard Bop famous.  At 3:34 of the track Kenny comes in burning with some serious Kenny Garrett-isms.  It is apparent that Kenny was very serious about his playing even then, at this very early stage of his career.  What a talent…….

Another seminal recording of Kenny’s is his CrissCross release Introducing Kenny Garrett, Criss 1014 CD from 1984.  Showcasing the talents of Master Trumpeter Woody Shaw and the terrific piano stylings of Mulgrew Miller, this is a must hear recording for any aspiring alto saxophonist.

It was very near the end of the 1980’s that we all became aware of Kenny’s prowess when the Miles Davis masterpiece Amandla came out in 1989.  I particularly love his at times sparse playing on Amandla, have a look here for more information regarding this modern jazz classic…..  Amandla is truly fantastic, no Miles Davis collection is complete without it; many incredible musicians contribute to the texture on this recording, including keyboardist George Duke, bassist Marcus Miller, drummers Omar Hakim and Al Foster……just a superb and sublime cast of characters and an immortal recording to be sure.


Another great document of Miles’ band with Kenny Garrett is the Live Around The World recording.  Kenny never holds back in live performances, and on this recording and the great Live In Paris DVD you get a real sense of what a unique virtuoso Kenny Garrett had become at this point.  Kenny continually manages to always be the perfect foil for Miles’ sparse statements at this point in his career, stretching and probing while playing long and breathtaking solos.

While I have not yet transcribed Kenny extensively, I have done these two contrasting transcriptions that I think convey some of the characteristics found generally in his playing.  Kenny takes a short solo on Sandu on the Blue Note recording Double Take he did with Woody Shaw and Freddie Hubbard.  For my students I consider Sandu required listening, an easy melody and a valuable one chorus solo to learn by ear for intermediate level alto players.  Typical Kenny phrases found here are the short rhythmic bursts that begin the solo and the Bird like phrases near the end of the solo.

Sandu:Kenny Garrett:pdf


At some point in the very early 1990’s the United States Post Office put out a CD that featured Kenny’s group playing Ornithology.  I think it was called the Jazz Masters, or something to that effect.  I’ve always loved this Kenny Garrett solo, he does some daring stuff here.  There is some interesting harmonic material contained in this solo, play it slowly to get it in your ear.

Scannable Document on Feb 14, 2018 at 6_22_32 PM


I have seen other transcriptions of Kenny Garrett solos on the Internet; I would suggest you explore the work of some other people out there with respect to this.  Charles McNeil has five up on his website that look interesting, check that out at…….

I also see that Mario Haltinner has the very same Ornithology solo written out here……

Over the years I have amassed a fair amount of Kenny Garrett recordings.  Any aspiring improviser cannot go wrong with literally any recording with Kenny on it.  In my collection at home are the following incredible recordings…..

African Exchange Student on Atlantic 7 82156-2 1990

Trilogy Warner Bros 1995 9 45731-2

Black Hope  Warner Bros 1992 9 45017-2

Simply Said Warner Bros 1999 9 47343-2

Kenny Garrett Trio Stars & Stripes/Live Jazz Door 1259 193 Blues On The Corner

Pursuance The Music Of John Coltrane

Prisoner Of Love


Kenny continually tears it up on many recordings as a sideman.  A couple of particularly noteworthy ones I listen back to often are Mulgrew Miller’s Wingspan recording from 1987 and Tales, Marcus Miller’s 1995 funky and soulful recording that covers a lot of stylistic ground.  Souleo from the Wingspan disc is a very cool track that made a big impression on a lot of us some 30 years ago.  Here is a quote from Mulgrew’s Wikipedia site….”Wingspan, as Miller explained, was ‘sort of a dedication to the legacy of Charlie Parker – Bird, you know.’  It became one of Miller’s main bands.”


Being the fan that I am, I have seen Kenny live many times, and I’m always very engaged when he plays soprano saxophone.  He really has a unique voice on both alto and soprano, and he’s a fabulous composer too.  Back in the late 1980’s the Night Music show that aired on late night television was a favorite among musicians.   This video is a great jam with no certain direction until the very end of the six minutes, but it is cool to see Kenny and Miles along with David Sanborn and the rest of this great band in this clip.  Great stuff……

Kenny Garrett continues to perform on a regular basis all over the world.  Up to date information regarding Kenny can be found at his website,  Have a look there and get out to see him live if you have the chance, you will not regret the effort.  Kenny Garrett is truly a living legend of the saxophone.

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