Electrifying Kenny Garrett Blurs Genres On ‘Sounds from the Ancestors’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

This writer is still basking in Kenny Garrett’s roof-raising, entertaining, rousing set at the 2021 Newport Jazz Festival just a few weeks ago.  In that stirring performance, he unveiled much of this genre-blurring, spiritually deep Sounds from the Ancestors.  Having pulled a friend away from an exciting performance from another artist, we somehow landed front row seats for Garrett’s set which was witnessed in the wings by Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper, Immanuel Wilkins, Terrace Martin, and others.  My friend caught that and exclaimed, “that says it all, right there.” Yes, the peer respect indicates as much as anything that Garrett is one of today’s leading forces and master of his instrument, the alto saxophone. With his head bobbing up and down as he moves around the stage, Garrett often motioned to the audience with one hand while playing with the other, making those gathered an integral part of his show.  No album can create that level of excitement but this one, if nothing else, should urge you to see a Garrett show.

In several interviews, Garrett has spoken about the concept for the album, but these words stand out – “The concept initially was trying to get some of the musical sounds that I remembered as a kid growing up- sounds that life your spirit like John Coltrane, ‘A Love Supreme’, Aretha Franklin, ‘Amazing Grace’, Marvin Gaye, ‘What’s Going On’, and the spiritual side of the church. When I started to think about them, I realized it was the spirit of my ancestors.”  To further elaborate, these are not only the jazz, R&B, and gospel sounds from America, but Garrett includes music from France, Cuba, Nigeria, and Guadeloupe.

The core ensemble for the recording are the same musicians who accompanied him at Newport augmented by guests. The core group is pianist Vernell Brown, Jr., bassist Corcoran Holt, drummer Ronald Bruner, and percussionist Rudy Bird.  Guests include drummer Lenny White, pianist and organist Johnny Mercier, trumpeter Maurice Brown, conquero Peditro Martinez, bata percussionist Dreiser Durruthy, and singers Dwight Trible, Jean Baylor, Linny Smith, Chris Ashley Anthony and Sheherazade Holman. Garrett sings on two tracks, plays electric piano on four, and does a piano intro and outro on the title track.

Two versions of “It’s Time to Come Home” bookend the album. The first takes on an Afro-Cuban hue, inspired by Garrett’s time playing with renowned Cuban pianist and composer Chucho Valdes. The title is intended to be a ‘call to action; for kids around the world to come home after playing all day.  Guests Jean Baylor and Dreiser Durruthy join.   He then offers a heartfelt tribute to the late, revered trumpeter Roy Hargrove, a musician Garrett admired for his ability to weave contemporary hard bop with R&B and hip-hop. Garrett sought permission from the John Coltrane estate to incorporate a passage from A Love Supreme in the piece that has Linny Smith, Chris Ashley Anthony and Sheherazade Holman as vocalists.

The latter three vocalists also join on the Black American church-inspired “When the Days Were Different,” where Garrett soars mightily mid-piece in his solo. “For Art’s Sake,” as one might guess, is in part a nod to drummer Art Blakey but Garrett also honors the late Nigerian king of the Afro-beat as drummer Ron Bruner develops rhythms attributed top both icons. There’s quite a bit of piano in this one with guest Johnny Mercier and Garrett both playing eclectic piano alongside Brown Jr.’s acoustic before the drums bring it to a boiled climax.  Drums and percussion also assume the forefront in “What Was That” and “Soldiers of the Fields/Soldats des Champs.” Garrett deftly navigates the percussive onslaught in the former, while the second two-part piece integrates marital beats and Guadeloupean rhythms as Lenny White on snare joins Bruner. The piece is marked by a repetitive motif that gives Garrett his many opportunities to alternate between urgent wails and more graceful passages. Garrett indicates that the two-part piece is a tribute to the legion of jazz musicians who fought to keep the music alive. “Soldats Des Champs” is also a tribute to the Haitian soldiers who fought against the French in the Haitian Revolution.

Afro-Cuban jazz returns in the title track where Garrett begins and ends on piano but blows hard throughout the interior of the piece over the bubbling percussion and vocals from guests Martinez who delivers Yoruban chants along with emotive cries from Trible.  Garrett describes the piece – “{The song} is about remembering the spirit of the sound of our ancestors– the sounds from their church services, the prayers they recited, the songs that they sung in the fields, the African drums that they played and the Yoruban chants.”  The album closes with the core band in the original version of “It’s Time to Come Home” as Garrett’s alto plays foil to rhythms of Bird and Bruner.

Garrett, the consummate performer, is again at the top of his game.

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