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For his third Mack Avenue Records release, Pushing the World Away, alto/soprano saxophonist, composer/bandleader Kenny Garrett literally had to “push away” a steady flow of distractions to get to the inner core of the album, shifting priorities in his schedule and diving deep into the essence of the music.

“I’m always writing, so coming up with the music wasn’t a problem,” says Garrett, who is arguably the most imitated alto saxophone player in jazz. “But I had been traveling a lot with my band, and I don’t rehearse new material on tour. Yet to record an album requires a lot of preparation and to conceptualize the music I had to push away to receive the blessings and gifts from these songs.”

On Pushing the World Away, Garrett continues to mature as a composer. As the late Mulgrew Miller, his close friend for many years, noted in a DownBeat feature on the saxophonist last year: “Kenny has always had a great sound from the beginning. He had his own unique sound, but [thanks to his compositions] that sound has transformed into a more captivating and lyrical voice.”

Garrett, in turn, nods to the pianist who he had known for more than 30 years on the jaunty, upbeat and at times explosive opening track of the album, “A Side Order of Hijiki,” which is decidedly not about the hijiki culinary seaweed. “No seaweed,” says Garrett who takes an expansive alto flight on this track. “It’s actually the word that Mulgrew used to describe my playing style. He would say, ‘I hear you playing that hijiki’.”

While not directly paying homage to Miller, Garrett does pay tribute to a number of other friends and heroes—Chick Corea, Chucho Valdés, Sonny Rollins, Donald Brown—on Pushing the World Away, which connects the album to Garrett’s 2012 critically acclaimed gem, Seeds From The Underground. “I wasn’t thinking of continuing the tribute idea like I had on Seeds and before that [in 1997] on Songbook,” Garrett says. “I was just writing. For example, during one of my trips to Guadeloupe, I was composing an upbeat, happy piece about the Caribbean islands, and that made me think of Sonny. I call it ‘J’ouvert,’ which is the Creole name for Carnival. It’s my ‘St. Thomas.’ I hope Sonny likes it.”

“Hey, Chick” is an elegant, graceful dance with Garrett’s expressive alto solo. “It captures that Spain, Eastern Spanish, Moroccan vibe,” says Garrett, “and it’s something I imagined Chick playing, something interesting, something he could really blow on.”

The spirited, dance-oriented “Chucho’s Mambo,” with spicy percussion by Rudy Bird and party trumpeting by Ravi Best, is Garrett’s Cuban salsa interpretation of what a collaboration with Valdés could have been like. “We were trying to get together, but I couldn’t get a visa to get to Cuba,” Garrett says. “We had been writing for each other.” He proudly adds, “Chucho and I have the same birthday.”

“Brother Brown,” a slow, emotive beauty that Garrett delivers on piano with a three-person string section, is a salute to Donald Brown, Garrett’s musical confidant and album co-producer. “I wanted this piece to be soulful and represent Donald’s personality,” Garrett says. “I also wanted to raise the bar for myself compositionally. Donald told me, ‘you wrote it, and you know how it should sound. So you should play the piano.’ The other two pianists I used in these sessions—Vernell Brown and Benito Gonzalez—were there and giving me the thumbs up.”

Video Archive

Kenny Live at the 2008 Detroit Jazz Festival (5 songs) | Kenny Garrett interview about Sketches of MD: