Despite holding the Guinness World Record for best-selling jazz artist, the saxophonist Kenneth Gorelick, who goes by the stage name Kenny G, may be better known as a punchline than as a musician. “I get it,” he tells the documentarian Penny Lane in Lane’s new film, “Listening to Kenny G.”
The movie’s animating question is why a musician who has brought an abundance of pleasure to so many listeners makes so many others almost incoherently angry. Some interviewees, including Kenny G himself, imply that judgments against his work are de facto judgments of the people who love it. That’s a specious conclusion, one which the movie could have unpacked better.
But “Listening” is very good at doing other things. As a music industry story, Kenny G’s rise, engineered by the mogul Clive Davis but at times bucked by the artist himself, is fascinating. The analysis of the link between what makes Kenny G a star and what makes him annoying is spot-on — particularly in its treatment of his relationship to jazz. Celebrated artists in that genre like John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk weren’t merely inspired players; they were bandleaders whose musical conceptions stressed instrumental interplay. With Kenny G, his sax is the thing.
The sax man’s song “Going Home” is supernaturally popular in China, where it has been adopted as a closing-time anthem. In the documentary, the critic Ben Ratliff, noting this, wryly wonders whether Kenny G’s music is “a weapon of consent.” The movie also gives a funny account of the composer-guitarist Pat Metheny’s enraged accusations of “musical necrophilia” after Kenny G essayed a virtual duet with Louis Armstrong.
The saxophonist, often displaying that mix of self-satisfaction and defensiveness which marks artists who’ve received fame and derision in equal measure, remains undaunted. His next album, he announces, will feature another virtual duet, this time with a jazz giant who was distinctively divisive in his own time, Stan Getz.