Music News & Reviews

Critic's pick: Kenny Garrett, 'Seeds from the Underground'

Seeds From the Underground, the approachable new album from saxophonist Kenny Garrett, explodes with such bright spirited lyricism that you might find yourself almost at odds with the title of its leadoff track, Boogety Boogety.

Granted, Garrett has established his reputation in the jazz world by being unafraid to summon a bit of the boogety in his playing. The fine series of albums he cut for Warner Bros. and Nonesuch reflected a roaring intensity, one that matched the tension and tone of John Coltrane. But there is little of that volcanic drive in Seeds from the Underground. Its soundscapes are vastly sunnier but no less intriguing.

Unlike Boogety Boogety, there is a telling aspect to the album's title. Seeds from the Underground refers to mentors' influences on the saxophonist and his music. Some, like the ode to his hometown, Detroit, are in no way veiled (although the liner notes state that the specific inspiration behind the tune is trumpeter Marcus Belgrave). Others, including Wiggins (a salute to Garrett's high school band leader, Bill Wiggins) are more specific. And at least one, Du-Wo-Mo, is practically encrypted (the "Du" refers to Duke Ellington).

Musically, there is considerable symmetry among the album's ten tunes, all of which are Garrett originals. Seeds from the Underground also shines with a solid quintet sound that employs percussionist Rudy Bird as a sort of mediator. His playing enhances the material's already strong melodic structures. His presence isn't poppish, but it's close, especially during the sunny strains of Boogety Boogety.

But pianist Benito Gonzalez proves to be Garrett's foil throughout the album. He compliments Garrett's light soprano sax lead on Ballad Jarrett (for fellow pianist Keith Jarrett) and underscores the more aggressive and boppish turns of J. Mac (for the late saxophonist Jackie McLean).

Furthering the album's overall accessibility is vocalist Nedelka Prescod. Her wordless singing on Haynes Here (for drummer Roy Haynes) has a subtle, bell-like quality that nearly passes for another wind instrument. But the ensemble singing (chanting is more like it) during Mother Earth Song borders on intrusive. It clutters what is already a complete-sounding post bop excursion.

Then there is Garrett himself, whose soprano sax lead discreetly but decisively navigates the broad, McCoy Tyner-esque melodic thrust on Seeds from the Underground's title tune. Like the rest of the album, the performance is quite lyrical. But as the rhythm section (nicely manned by Gonzalez, bassist Nat Reeves and drummer Ronald Bruner) holds its solemn melodic ground, Garrett's playing grows more fearsome until it reaches a Wayne Shorter-like boil. It's on such tunes that the ordered, enticing music on Seeds from the Underground seems to bloom before your very ears.