He's known as a terrifying virtuoso, but his music has been as much about tones, colors, and aesthetics as it's been about technique. Alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett is well known as an alumnus of Miles Davis's final band (he shared the stage with Davis from 1987 until his death in '91), but he's cut his own visionary path across the jazz landscape since then. His newest album, Sketches of MD, was recorded live at New York's Iridium with tenor giant Pharoah Sanders. It's not a "tribute album" to Miles, but Garrett's philosophy of documenting his band at distinctly potent moments during his ever-changing trajectory is familiar to fans of Davis's broad body of work.
The opener "The Ring" is incredibly powerful -- thick chords coupled with an insistent vamp in a thunderous performance. Garrett has tons of chops, but he also has complete control over his tone and always tailors it into the most emotive statement possible. Sanders's strong blowing makes the ground shake, and for a moment you forget this is just a five-piece band. Pianist Benito Gonzalez gives the group the deep harmonic foundation it needs with shades of McCoy Tyner or Mulgrew Miller but with his own funky touch and embellishments. Synthesizers help fill out the sound, too, played by both Gonzalez and Garrett throughout the date.
The group adds some gospel touches with the sweet blues of "Intro to Africa" (part of a suite Garrett will eventually be recording). Garrett's and Sanders's approach here invokes the church, and drummer Jamire Williams gives the tune a confident, wide swing that Elvin Jones would've been proud of. Swirling sounds sail over a mysterious groove on "Sketches of MD." Garrett's sax effects and economical playing conjures up images of Miles, while we find Sanders in an equally sensitive mood.
The responsive rhythm section shines on the two feel-good jams that make up the latter half of the set. They get a great "pocket" going thanks to a smart, slinky backbeat from Williams on "Wayne's Thang." Pharoah slides right into a funky tenor solo that gives way to his trademark full-toned shouts and shrieks. And they pull out all the stops for the fan favorite "Happy People" where Nat Reeves gets absolutely bumpin' on double bass.
Garrett's 2006 studio album Beyond the Wall also featured Sanders, and it was clear then that their sounds are connected. Garrett's full alto sound can get rough and brawny like a tenor, and Sanders can get that cut we expect of the alto with his high register and harmonics. Sketches takes these saxmen in a new direction, though, adding funk, fusion, gospel colorings to their performance. This incendiary live set is as fun as it is profound.
Sketches of MD: Live at the Iridium Featuring Pharoah Sanders (Mack Avenue)
Kenny Garrett (alto sax, bass clarinet, organ, synthesizer)
Pharoah Sanders (tenor sax, vocals)
Benito Gonzalez (piano, Rhodes, synthesizer)
Nat Reeves (bass)
Jamire Williams (drums)
And, seriously, get Beyond the Wall while yer at it.