Kenny Garrett brings jazz greatness to the College

The silence was deafening. There he was, Kenny Garrett, arguably the greatest living saxophone player, bent over on stage, lifeless and at his most human. Bassist Concordan Holt slouched his head. Pianist Vernell Brown wiped a tear from his eye. The silence crept on for no more than two minutes, but it felt like an eternity.

It came after the first half of the Kenny Garrett Quintet’s unforgettable show that took place Thursday on the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance MainStage. Garrett is a Grammy-award winning sax player and composer whose resume includes recordings with Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Art Blakey and Q-Tip. He has firmly established himself in the “you-have-to-know-the-rules-before-you-break-them” vanguard, his improvisations all dichotomies of jolting virtuosity and primal atonality.

Both were on full display Thursday night as Garrett and company burst into their first tune, “Philly,” a standout of Garrett’s 2016 album Do Your Dance! Over a Coltrane-inspired modal chord progression and frantic, wall-of-sound drumming from Marcus Baylor, Garrett unleashed the first of countless fiery solos that night. Laced with an undeniable East Asian influence, the maximal “Philly” sounded regal, Garrett’s alto saxophone blaring like a war-horn.

Despite being just a quintet, Garrett’s band sounded like a full ensemble, largely because of the furious interplay between Baylor and percussionist Rudy Bird. The group members’ facial and bodily expressions confirmed their transcendence — Baylor’s wild grin, Bird’s calming gaze, Brown’s noticeable mumbling as he plucked out melodies, Holt’s spiritual focus. And, of course, Garrett’s intense, rhythmic swaying, pulsating back and forth in time with his riffs and flourishes.

The Quintet followed “Philly” with the hypnotic “Pushing the World Away,” an odd-meter tour-de-force defined by several layers of polyrhythmic Buddhist chants from Brown, Holt and Garrett. Brown later described the meaning of the chant to me as a “positive life force,” but hearing it on the main stage, the piece felt like a foggy funeral march for a deceased monarch, Garrett’s saxophone crying out like a mourner. Brown’s piano playing took on a drunken quality, his phrases veering and stumbling over the beat with off-putting intentionality. As the song neared its end, the drums and percussion cut out, leaving just the piano, bass, saxophone and Buddhist chants. Garrett noticeably entered a trance-like state during this coda, sometimes filling space with fleeting flourishes, other times closing his eyes and resigning himself to the groove.

Then it was Baylor’s time to shine on “Haynes Here,” a triumphant F-minor waltz featuring one of the climaxes of the night in its devastating outro. As Garrett and Bird hammered in the three-note melody, Baylor gradually deconstructed the beat, raising the energy and suspense by playing increasingly fewer phrases and fills. It all culminated in both Baylor and Garrett playing the exact same massive rhythms in absurdly dramatic fashion, anticipating each other’s hits with breathtaking precision.

Roaring applause followed, and Garrett edged the crowd on, demanding even more. As the clapping continued, the lights dimmed to a violet haze and the Quintet began playing a spacey, ambient piece — which Garrett later told me was not planned — buzzing with rattling rainforest percussion and muffled horn riffs. Yet once again, Garrett’s obsession with compositional deconstruction came with an unsettling vengeance. Drums, bass and percussion systematically slipped out, reducing the totally-improvised piece to piano and saxophone. Brown fell out of rhythm, letting each arpeggio ring out in its wistful simplicity and pondering which chord to play next. Meanwhile, Garrett silently began to weep, mouthing out words that might’ve formed an invocation or a prayer. This went on for minutes on end.

And then, silence. There was no cue to remain silent; everyone in the audience just knew. No one clapped, no one spoke. The players on stage were motionless, heads down. I didn’t know what to make of it. I still don’t. Sometimes I haphazardly try to attach social or political meanings to artistic statements, but this one was beyond that. What it represented was what it was: an absence of sound. It was the essence of jazz, the “notes you don’t play,” as Miles Davis once said.  It was utterly captivating.

As suddenly as the silence descended, the Quintet snapped out of it and closed out its set with the most accessible, danceable songs of the night. Brown took center stage on the funky “Backyard Groove,” slyly quoting the jazz standard “Donna Lee” in his quirky solo and receiving laughs from the jazz students in attendance. Garrett also bought into the quoting game, playfully referencing the nursery rhyme “Frère Jacques” at the end of the tune.

Coming off of the dark first half of the set culminating in that pin-drop silence, I felt a little uneasy about the Quintet’s sudden shift to a lighter mood, more straightforward grooves and increased audience participation. But it all made sense when the band played its ear-worm closer “Do Your Dance!”

There are countless jazz musicians with the virtuosity of Garrett, but what makes him stand out is his ability to seamlessly tap into nearly every emotion on the spectrum that listeners experience. Only Garrett can go from nearly breaking down in tears on stage to quoting a French nursery rhyme in a funk tune. Only Garrett can include both atonal saxophone noises and the cleanest sounding string of eighth notes I’ve heard in my life in the same solo. Only Garrett can turn a moment of silence into a masterpiece.

Kenny Garrett is a Grammy Award-winning American post-bop jazz saxophonist and flutist, who explores the eclectic industry. Photo courtesy of artsy.com.