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Smooth romance and Latin fire in the Key of G

March 13, 2008
By JON WOODHOUSE, Contributing Writer
You’re the best-selling instrumentalist in the world, you’ve sold more than 50 million CDs, and you’re ranked the 25th all-time highest selling artist in the United States, but when you suggest to your record label that you’d like to stretch a bit and release an original album of Latin-flavored music, they say no way, just make another standards collection.

“It was awful,” says Kenny G about the conflict with his longtime record company.

“I wanted to do an album of original material, but that was not met positively by Arista Records. They said, I’m in a category that you just can’t do original material any more. I said, if you look back at the history of my career my most successful records have been my originals, and I think I lost touch with that and I want to get back to that. It was, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ I thought it would be really nice to write an album of Latin songs, and put a little more tempo than normal into my records, do a whole album with my saxophone on top of Latin rhythms, some romantic, some more uptempo.”

So the multiplatinum, Grammy-winning artist got on the phone to Starbucks, the coffee giant that’s morphed into a powerful music retailer. Having recently released new CDs by Paul McCartney, Joni Mitchell and James Taylor, they jumped at the opportunity.

“They don’t just take anybody. It’s not like you can call up Starbucks and say I’d like you to sell my record,” Kenny continues.

“I was happy that when my suggestion to do this record was met with such negative feedback from Arista and (label president) Clive Davis, it was met with the absolute opposite reaction from Starbucks and Concord Records.”

Elegantly combining samba, salsa and bossa nova songs, “Rhythm and Romance” features Kenny’s signature saxophone teamed with some of the hottest Latin players around including acclaimed Latin percussionists Alex Acuna and Paulino Da Costa and Eric Clapton’s bassist Nathan East.

“Normally when I make records I’m in the studio by myself or with my partner, Walter Afanasieff. We program a lot of sounds on synthesizers because I like to have the control to change things, to make everything just perfect,” he says.

“This record, we decided to go into the studio live with all the guys, and it made it even more unique and different than I’ve done in the past. When you’ve been lucky enough to have a career as long as I have, there’s an obligation to people to stretch as an artist. I could keep making the same records over and over, but I think it’s an obligation to try and go out there.”

With a phenomenally successful career spanning more than 25 years, Kenny often breaks sales records. His fifth studio album, “Breathless,” became the No. 1 best-selling instrumental album ever, with over 15 million copies sold. He broke another record when his first holiday album, “Miracles,” sold over 13 million copies, making it the most successful Christmas album to date.

So how does it feel to be the biggest selling instrumental musician of contemporary times?

“When you say it like that, I want to pat myself on the back,” he responds laughing.

“I never really think of it like that. I remember when ‘Songbird’ became this big hit and somebody said to me, ‘In the history of instrumental hits, people only get one, so what are you going to do for the rest of your career, how are you going to top that?’ All I do is, every day I wake up and practice my sax and try to become a better saxophone player. That’s what I continue to do. The accolades are great, but I think more about the fact that I’ve got to practice more and become better as a sax player and songwriter.”

It was a now anonymous musician on the Ed Sullivan variety TV show that initially inspired little Kenny Gorelick to take up his instrument.

“I can remember sitting on the floor watching TV and somebody played a saxophone solo, and I looked at my mom and said, I’d like to play that instrument, it looks fun.”

Who could imagine that to this day Kenny still plays the same instrument he adopted as a boy.

“It’s like a pair of jeans you grow into, but they don’t wear out,” he explains. “The saxophone is a very personal instrument and I’ve grown with that particular saxophone. It’s almost like a brother.”

Influenced by the smooth R&B sax playing of Grover Washington, Jr., rather than fiery jazz legends like John Coltrane or Charlie Parker, Kenny has focused on the pop-orientated, more sensual side of instrumental music.

“I’ve always just followed my instincts,” he notes. “Most of thy stuff in the last 10 years has been more romantic songs. Sometimes I think I’m very romantic, but only when I have my saxophone in my hands. Without my saxophone I’m pretty much of a dork.”

In recent years Kenny has been steered by his label toward recording standards and pop favorites. In 2006, “In the Mood for Love,” included covers of “Yesterday” and “Fly Me to The Moon.” In 2004, he produced “At Last … The Duets Album,” joined by a host of celebrated entertainers such as Barbra Streisand, Chaka Khan and Burt Bacharach on classic tunes like “Misty” and “Alfie.”

“That was Clive Davis (of Arista Records) making the phone calls on my behalf to get those guys to do it,” Kenny explains. “I liked the artists that we picked, but the arrangements of the songs were a bit controlled, by Clive, and I would have had them be a little more improvisational. They were so straight. I’m proud of it, but my favorite duets are the ones I did with Arturo Sandoval and David Sanborn. We were left alone because they were instrumentals and nobody cared that much.”

Performing on Friday in Castle Theater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, Kenny’s not really sure why he’s so amazingly popular.

“I don’t know if there’s a secret, it’s almost intangible, there’s no real answer. There are a lot of smooth jazz guys out there, and people connect with whatever they connect with. You can’t really put your finger on it. There’s something in the way I play, and the sense of melody and the way I write and arrange songs. It strikes a chord with a lot people, and I’m very appreciative.”

• WHO: Kenny G, Gypsy Pacific will open.

• WHERE: Castle Theater at the MACC

• WHEN: Friday, 7:30 p.m.

• TICKETS: $55, $65, $75, and $85, plus applicable fees, available from the MACC box office, 242-7469 or


Amy Hanaiali‘i Gilliom returns to Castle Theater for a 7:30 p.m. concert Saturday. This acclaimed contemporary interpreter of female ha’i (falsetto) singing is just back from appearances in New York City that garnered rave reviews from Variety and The New York Times. Amy routinely wins awards for her exemplary recordings, and will no doubt walk away with a 2008 Na Hoku for Christmas Album of the Year for her gorgeous “A Hawaiian Christmas” CD.

Last year, she won four Hokus for “Generation Hawai‘i,” including Album of the Year, Hawaiian Album of the Year, and Female Vocalist of the Year. It was nominated for a Hawaiian Grammy.

On May 4, Amy will perform at the International Music Night of the 2008 Hawaii Romance Festival at the Waikiki Shell, joining Sergio Mendes and the Matt Catingub Orchestra.

• Tickets for Amy Hanaiali‘i Gilliom are $10, $28, and $37, and half-price for kids 12 and younger, plus applicable fees, available as listed above.


Tony C will present a free show from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday at the Ka‘anapali Beach Hotel.

An acclaimed Na Hoku Award-winning musician and kumu hula, Tony Conjugation’s latest CD, “Na Hula Punahele,” offered a rich trove for all who love hula. Mixing some Hawaiian favorites with a few original compositions, he featured songs by noted composers including Alice Johnson, Sam Bernard and Alfred Alohikea, that have never been heard before.

In his early years he studied with revered hula masters such as Aunty Maiki Aiu Lake, ‘Iolani Luahine and Alice Namakelua, and for the last decade has led Halau Na Wainohia.

Maui’s Halau Kekuaokala‘au‘ala‘iliahi, na kumu hula ‘Iliahi and Haunani Joy Paredes will join him at the show.


Acclaimed classical Indian music sitar player Shubhendra Rao makes his Maui debut on Friday at the MACC’s McCoy Studio Theater accompanied by tabla player Ty Burhoe.

A disciple of sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, Rao is acclaimed as one of the most brilliant instrumentalists of his generation. A child prodigy who started playing the sitar at the age of 3, Rao studied with Shankar for more than seven years, often accompanying his teacher, sharing the stage in solo concerts and with orchestras around the world. A regular performer on radio and the national television, he is one of the very few artists to have been invited to audition by All India Radio.

Experimenting with new musical idioms, he has composed for dance ballets and collaborated with Chinese, Japanese and jazz musicians.

Reviewing one of his concerts The Times of India praised, Rao “cast a magical spell on his listeners. He has fully imbibed the style of his mentor and embellished his music with numerous innovative ideas.”

A student of legendary tabla master Zakir Hussain, Burhoe has pursued a passion for classical Indian music for many years. He also excels at creating unusual instrumental collaborations blending the tabla with African, flamenco, rock, Celtic, Chinese, bluegrass and jazz traditions. In recent years, he’s worked with a number of notable musicians across the spectrum including banjo virtuoso Bella Fleck, jazz pianist Art Lande, former Journey drummer Steve Smith, Native American flutist R. Carlos Nakai and popular New Age artist Kitaro.

Burhoe was featured on the soundtrack of the Oscar-winning documentary “Born into Brothels,” about kids born to Indian prostitutes. His most recent CDs include “Sky,” a world fusion collaboration with pianist Bill Douglas, and the more meditative “Invocation.”

• Shubhendra Rao and Ty Burhoe perform on Friday at the MACC’s McCoy Studio Theater. Tickets are $25, plus applicable fees, available from the MACC box office, 242-7469 or Indian food will be available before the show.

• Contact Jon Woodhouse at

Article Photos

The saxophone is a very personal instrument and I’ve grown with that particular saxophone. It’s almost like a brother.

- Kenny G



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