Kenny Garrett was one of the last major graduates of the Miles Davis bands, and the Miles association is always one that will stick. The imprimatur of Davis is still strong enough for any of his sidemen to gain automatic entry into the VIP lounge, even when their direction is far removed from that of Miles in his rather variable last years.
Garrett's uncompromising alto, for instance, speaks far more of the middle to late Sixties, when hard bop's aggression had distilled into a granite edifice on the verge of exploding due to its own internal pressures. In full steam - and for the most part Garrett sails forth on nothing less - he displays the same disregard for the notes' feelings as Coltrane; great chunky, plain quavers pouring forth from his horn, the tight opening of the sax squeezing them around the throat and almost throttling them as they're pushed out.
Without wanting to push the Trane comparison too far, he displays a similar seriousness of purpose. Garrett is no show-off, standing on stage bending backward and forward like a child's toy whose only mobility comes from being pushed, when it nods to and fro. In performance he becomes a channel for the music, a human divining stick tapping into subterranean currents.
Sometimes the current returns him again and again to the same note. Like a preacher possessed by God, he comes back to the one statement: "Here's what I say - do you hear me? Here's what I say. No, listen! Here's what I say."
The almost claustrophobic omnipresence of the message was heightened by Ronald Bruner, a drummer so fired up that he seemed to be suffering from "percussion rage". Garrett and Bruner were egging each other on, ratcheting the smoke levels too high for Vernell Brown, the leader's regular pianist, who was finding it hard to draw breath musically. Although there were some magnificent moments when his solos built chromatically to dovetail perfectly into a fragment of the head, used as a bridge refrain, his more considered approach struggled to break through. This is a consequence of touring with different musicians to those in the studio; the dynamic inevitably changes.
Bruner's drumming brought another level of intensity to the numbers from Garrett's last two albums, but the clarity was missing. Garrett's dark-hued concept needs a little Mr Sheen to lighten the sound.
That is why his reception at Ronnie's was not quite as ecstatic as one would have expected. The full power and beauty of Garrett was on stage, but it just needed to be better lit. An odd gear-change at the end, into an audience-involving version of the funkier "Happy People", brought a slightly wary crowd more on side, though the preacher would have done better to warm them up a little beforehand.
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