Kenny G - Heart and Soul (2010)

Kenny G
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It is difficult for many pop fans to remember that there was a time when Kenny G was considered cool.  For quite a few years KG has been treated with the kind of sarcastic contempt than Barry Manilow faced in the years that followed his commercial peak, and largely for the same reason:  he was a talented musician who seemingly found a commercial formula and rode it to great popularlity, arguably at the expense of his artistic development.

It is difficult for many pop fans to remember that there was a time when Kenny G was considered cool.  For quite a few years KG has been treated with the kind of sarcastic contempt than Barry Manilow faced in the years that followed his commercial peak, and largely for the same reason:  he was a talented musician who seemingly found a commercial formula and rode it to great popularlity, arguably at the expense of his artistic development.

Interestingly, soul music fans have generally been kinder to the saxman than pop audiences. Perhaps it was because they were the first to adopt him, and they remember just how really fun his early 80s albums like G-Force, Gravity and, especially, the five times platinum Duotones, were.  An obvious student of Grover Washington, Kenny was unabashed in his love of mildly funky beats and in his belief that his music could play in the adult R&B landscape dominated at that time by Anita Baker and Luther Vandross.  And there was no doubt that songs like "Midnight Motion" and "Don't Make Me Wait for Love" fit right in with the best Urban Adult Contemporary music of the time.

But perhaps success did spoil Mr. Gorelick, as his albums following Duotones grew increasingly safe and soft, and one catchy but faceless ballad after another became the calling card for his decade of chart dominance.  R&B fans stuck with him longer than the pop crowd, but by the turn of the millennium he was pretty much relegated to the smoothest of smooth jazz, relying on gimmicks like a duets album, a covers disc and two holiday projects to keep sales going with his aging audience.

So it is somewhat notable that KG takes a mild step back on his newest disc, Heart and Soul, working with longtime collaborator Walter Afanasieff on a collection of all new material that harkens back to the music of his commercial peak.  And resemble that music it does without exception.  As always, the disc is impeccably produced, with pristine sound and a romantic sheen overlaying a dozen songs that sound characteristically hooky, melodic and...familiar.  As is the case on several of his albums, the high point on Heart and Soul is a vocal track, with guest Robin Thicke fronting the very nice ballad, "Fall Again." The rest, including the Babyface-led "No Place Like Home" and ten easy-to-digest slow and midtempo instrumental cuts, are 100% pleasant, if not very filling.  Songs like "Letters from Home," "The Promise," "My Devotion" and the title track sound great while you're having dinner, writing a letter or chatting with a friend.  What they don't do is make you want to listen too hard, because they're not there to bother you; they're just nice friends passing through. 

It was interesting listening to Heart and Soul in the same week I heard Janelle Monae's new The ArchAndroid, because the contrast is so striking.  Monae demands you to stop what you're doing, dammit, and look at me, while Kenny G does everything possible to not make you the slightest bit uncomfortable ("Really, don't make a fuss. Just pretend I'm not here").  That's not to say there isn't a place for an album like Heart and Soul.  After a long day surrounded by the Janelle Monaes of our everyday life, it can be very enjoyable to have uber-melodic, unchallenging, soft music to finish the night.  And, despite my regrets that he has taken such a treacly path with his career, for over a quarter century Kenny G has filled that soft spot for millions of people quite effectively.  For those times, Body and Soul is recommended.

By Chris Rizik

 
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