The alto and soprano saxophonist Kenny Garrett acknowledges many sources of inspiration on his engagingly robust new album,Seeds From the Underground. Most of the acknowledgments are fairly obvious: a postbop workout called J. Mac is for the saxophonist Jackie McLean,and an urgent waltz called Haynes Here is for the drummer Roy Haynes. Detroit is a tribute to Garretts hometown; Welcome Earth Song concerns his home planet.
Theres a sincere motive behind all this naming. Garrett,51,seems eager to attest to the influences,both personal and environmental,that made him the artist he is. More,then: Du-Wo-Mo,is for Duke Ellington,Woody Shaw and Thelonious Monk; Wiggins refers to an old band teacher. But what about his former mentor,Miles Davis? Or his lodestar,John Coltrane? Hes made each one the focus of a previous album,which would seem to suffice.
Still,its hard to put Coltrane far out of mind. Garretts sound is tart and gusty,bordering on perfervid,but with a pinpoint-accurate expenditure of energy. Like Coltrane hes an expert in strategies of escalation,often worrying a phrase into a mantra,and then a rant,before drawing down again.
He has also groomed his sidemen to evoke Coltranes 1960s quartet: Benito Gonzalez has a forcefully oblique piano style derived from McCoy Tyner,and Ronald Bruner pummels his drums with a polyrhythmic fury descended from Elvin Jones. So what separates this album from historical re-enactment is twofold: the attitude and the material.
Garrett has a taste for funkiness in his writing,even when he leaves no trace of a backbeat (but especially when he does). The better of these compositions suggest the pithy durability and deceptive simplicity of folk songs. This can backfire,as it does on Welcome Earth Song.
Its clear that the band has a comfort zone. The promise of melodic abstraction held out by Ballad Jarrett,for the pianist Keith Jarrett,leaves everyone sounding a little strained. But what this group does well,it does commandingly,which means Garrett is reaping his own rewards.