Kenny Garrett’s first studio recording in six years contains 10 new, original compositions that pay homage to the “seeds” of his maturation into one of the more technically formidable and stylistically wide-ranging alto saxophonists in jazz today. Fans of Garrett’s straight-ahead hard blowing are immediately rewarded with Latin-oriented burner “Boogety Boogety,” a tribute to watching western movies with his father that brims with the ebullience of a Sonny Rollins calypso, with invaluable support from percussionist Rudy Bird; and the blazing hard-bop of “J-Mac,” which surges and roils like Phil Woods and John Coltrane as well as Jackie McLean, and features one of the many sterling piano solos from Venezuelan Benito Gonzalez reminiscent of chordal grandeur of McCoy Tyner.
Then Garrett veers into other moods and textures. There is a pair of ballads: “Detroit,” with its scratchy phonograph effect and moody soul-blues vibe that would be at home on the Mo’ Better Blues soundtrack; and the self-explanatory “Ballad Jarrett,” which captures the exquisite hush-and-pomp of Keith Jarrett. Garrett has occasionally fallen prey to commercial glitz, so the New Age-y meld of sax and choral vocals on “Welcome Earth Song” is initially ominous, but a pair of galvanizing solos, from Gonzalez and then Garrett channeling Pharoah Sanders, circa “Thembi,” validates the tune.
Garrett’s chops as a composer remain strong — there are catchy melodies and odd-metered (but not off-putting) time changes to further the shifting soundscape. The core quintet has been together a while (bassist Nat Reeves was on Garrett’s 1984 debut), and compositional shout-outs to the likes of Roy Haynes, Duke Ellington and Marcus Belgrave as well as those already mentioned are done without straining too hard for an abiding theme. Longtime fans should be pleased, and initiates have a rich back catalog to plum, including Garrett’s work with Miles Davis, Freddy Hubbard and Woody Shaw as well as gems such as his Coltrane tribute Pursuance, his modal explorations on Beyond the Wall and especially the kinetic Standard of Language.