Every day at closing time across China, the song “Going Home” by Kenny G trickles out of speakers in offices, malls, and restaurants to signal the workday’s end, as it has done for the past 30 years. That one of the saxophone superstar’s 1980s songs should continue to resonate so far—and so consistently—from his American home base is intriguing, but hardly surprising.
“Most of his compositions are written in the scales we know and love in China,” explains Yin Zhi Yuan of the Chinese State Music Association in the HBO documentary Listening to Kenny G (2021), out today, which aims to uncover how Kenny G’s music has become as deeply embedded in our collective unconscious as, say, spaghetti, Box Tops, or certain movie lines—and why
turtlenecked jazz gatekeepers some people are so pissed off about that success. It’s a tender but honest unpacking of the sax icon’s work, from director Penny Lane, whose past documentary work (Hail Satan?) shows a talent for spotlighting often misunderstood cultural figures.
Kenny G is at once America’s boyfriend, cool uncle, and everyday hype man. He is also outlandishly great at pretty much everything he attempts. Throughout the doc, we learn that Kenny G is the best-selling instrumental artist in history, with over 75 million records sold, and that the man né Kenneth Gorelick is also an excellent pilot, baker, and golfer.
He’s also a killer interviewee, exuding instant relatability and poise when we connected on Zoom to talk about his approach to romantic gift giving, his upcoming record New Standards, and what makes the new film so exciting. “People seem to like [the film],” he says, “because it’s not the normal music documentary fluff piece that shows the artist and how great they are.” Viewers will go beyond the frenemy gates of jazz purists, visit Kenny’s high school, and see the intimate workings of a methodical approach to creativity (his anthem is “practice, practice, practice”) that makes him the Bill Nye of jazz. “Not to pat myself on the back,” he tells VICE, “but I’ve just worked really hard. I’ve been doing this for 50 years, so I should be good at it. And I hope that’s what the next generation sees. I hope they take that lesson to become so great at what they love that when they’re older, the world says, ‘Hey, wanna come in?’”
Given his non-stop joie de vivre and ability to turn out such saxy tunes for love, we thought he’d be the perfect person to consult on the best romantic gifts to give during the holidays, from music to booze and more…
VICE: Hi from New York, Kenny. It’s such a pleasure. Where are you?
Kenny G: Ah, New York! I love it. I’m back in LA where it’s nice and quiet, in my studio—my little lair, here—but I love that city.
Congrats on the new album and documentary, by the way—you’ve been busy.
Thank you, it’s been wonderful.
What was it about director Penny Lane that made you think, OK, this is it. This is the person to make my documentary? And why now?
First off, she’s a great person. She’s talented, fun, and she presented the film to me as an idea that I really liked by saying, “Hey, let’s talk about your music. We’ll show some things about what you’ve done and all of that, but let’s also talk about why some people are really upset that you’re successful.” And I said, “You know, I’ve been seeing that since the 1980s, and I’m happy to tell that story.”
Some people get really upset, don’t they? Although, and I’m paraphrasing here, a line from a recent critic struck me that said that Listening to Kenny G is an elegy for celebrating the creation of art on its own terms. What do you think about that?
That’s nice. I like that. I mean, I’ve always felt that the music is the music. When people categorize, criticize, or compare it, that’s where they get into trouble. I love what I do. I make my music from my heart, in my own little studio here—it’s just my thing, and fortunately, the world has just had positive feedback to me just doing my thing. It’s about presenting what feels good to me.
How would you categorize your music now, after some 50 years in the business?
That’s a hard question. Some people would call it jazz, some people would call it not jazz.
I’m an instrumentalist. I play sax. I wouldn’t call it pop, but it could be called pop. I always keep CDs with me so I can say, “Here, if you want to know, just listen and you’ll decide what kind of music I play.”
Can you still hold that iconic 45 minute note on the saxophone?
Of course I can do that. That’s real, that’s easy [smiles]. That’s no problem.
You’ve been the kind of resident jazz serenader of America—the world, really—for about 50 years. How do you keep your energy up?
Gosh, if you want to call me that, I’d like that [laughs]. You know, I work out and all that, but I’m just genuinely wired to be excited about things. I’m excited about the next day because I just wonder what I’m going to learn. I love being a student. That’s basically my raison d’etre. I wake up and wonder, “What’s going to happen today? What am I going to discover? Maybe I’ll talk to someone who sparks a thought, and that will lead to another thought, and then another amazing thing.” I think that keeps me going. I’m just so excited about life.
Now, let’s get spicy. As the Earth’s Serenader in Residence, what are some romantic gifts you would suggest for the holidays?
Well, first we have to decide whether I’m a romantic guy or not.
[Laughs] I have to say that I think I am, although I’ve been told that I’m perhaps more thoughtful than romantic. Which I took both negatively, and positively. But I’m going to tell you that I’m romantic.
Yes, let’s get romantic.
Here’s the thing about relationships: You have to listen. Your partner, what do they think of all day? What do they believe? I don’t like somebody that just says, “I want this ring, or that bracelet.” That’s not romance. You’re just afraid. Afraid that they’re not going to be happy, and that’s not a good [foundation]. You need to listen, and then give them a few nuanced surprises…
We asked Kenny for the guide to how he dines, unwinds, and gives truly romantic gifts; what albums he would recommend for the new jazz lover, and what music is on-repeat in his own headphones of late.
Kenny G’s Blueprint for Romance
Here’s what it will look like when Kenny G swoops in to steal your girl: The flowers will be bountiful, the suit will be crisp, and the note inviting her to a surprise dinner (at her favorite restaurant, duh) will be hand-written. But those roses better not be red. “It’s got to be white roses,” he specifies, “A dozen white roses. You can get away with a half dozen, if it’s put into the right arrangement.”
“You really don’t need anything else” says Kenny, “than a nice suit, nice roses, and a nice restaurant, except for a hand-written card that really means something personal. Not just, I love you/you’re great/you’re my angel. Write something they would be happy to know you remembered from a conversation. It can be anything, big or small. Show nuance. People want to feel heard. It’s not hard, but it takes more time.” Also, having beautiful personal stationary on hand is one hell of a lowkey flex; Papier has dozens of sophisticated, but understated designs we love.
On the Importance of a Good Suit
Remember, you are the present, as you step out into the twinkling moonlight to meet your love in a suit. “Even if that’s not your thing,” says Kenny, “I think it’s romantic. You’re doing it for your [partner].” So you gotta look sharp. “Here’s the key to a suit,” he says, “It doesn’t have to cost a lot, that’s [a misconception]. It can totally come off the rack, but you should get it fitted for you. Spend the extra $100 at the tailor, and make sure it buttons correctly.” This brushed gray suit has a fun 70s feel:
While Bonobos delivers with the wool ‘fit:
This Topman piece is also a great dupe for the deep blue suits Kenny has been rocking of late:
Kenny’s Favorite Gift to Receive
“I’m so particular, that even getting a new phone is stressful for me,” says Kenny, “I have to touch it, I have to think about it… forget that. It’s hard for even me to know what I like.” Which, same. “But here’s what I know I do like,” he says, “French wine. A Bordeaux, or a Burgundy. Just French wine overall, you can’t go wrong. Not that I’m trying to be snotty. But a nice, quality bottle of French wine would tell me, ‘Hey, this person has been listening to me all year.’ It’s about the wine, but it’s also about the intention.” If you really want to ball out, you could pick up their veritable bar tab for the year with a wine subscription, or order a flight of sampler wines.
Massage and Bon Voyage Like Kenny
Yes, Kenny G is Lord of the Sax, but he’s also a Gemini, a decorated golfer, a pilot, and [air horns] a total bath man. Every night, the G Man unwinds with a Japanese-style soak. “I have been going to Japan since the early 80s,” he says, “[and] the Japanese way of bathing isn’t like the American style; there’s no big bubble bath going on. You take a shower before you get in the bathtub, because you want to soak a clean body in hot water. So I take my shower, and then I get into my bath which is, literally, as hot as I can take it. So hot that most people couldn’t get in. Then you go into a cold bath. I’m not bragging, but I’m fortunate enough that I can afford two bathtubs in my bathroom. So I have one run cold, and one hot. Epsom salt is the one product I use. It’s good for your muscles.”
“If you’ve got hair, make sure that it looks good”
Wise words from Daddi Kenny. As for the secret to his own Botticelli curls? “I breathe. I’m alive,” he laughs, “It’s natural, and I’m lucky that my father’s mother also had these ringlets. I honestly don’t have to do much about it. I just comb my hair with some water and my fingers—not a brush—and a bit of defining cream.” We asked our favorite celebrity hair stylists what products they use on clients as well as their own hair, and really dig OUAI’s curl definer because it also has a bit of hold:
Kenny’s Recs for Music Lovers
Kenny’s latest record, New Standards, marries his love of old standard jazz songs with his own signature style, and the result feels a bit like what happens when you put Maldon salt on a chocolate chip cookie: complimentary, sensory bliss. “[The late] Stan Getz also made one of the most beautiful jazz records with Getz for Lovers,” says Kenny, “in the 1950s and 60s, Getz was really one of the jazz masters. He played bossa nova music and really popularized it [for a certain demographic]. That’s the go-to album for me, right there.” Also, for the love of Aphrodite, get his iconic album Duotones on vinyl.
Don’t be too quick to pigeonhole Kenny’s musical tastes, either. “I do like heavy metal music,” he says, “the guitar solos [can be] kick-ass. I’ve been to a Megadeth concert, and an Opeth concert, down on the floor. These tatted-up tough guys asked me for a picture, because they said their mom was a fan, and I said, “Sure, on the condition you protect me from getting thrown into the mosh pit.” They said “You got it!” and protected their little sax player, because their moms would get upset if I were hurt under their watch.”
There you have it, songbirds. Happy holidays, and may we continue to protect the cultural gem that is Kenny G at all costs.
Listening to Kenny G is available for streaming on HBO December 2, 2021. Kenny’s latest album, New Standards, will be released through Concord Records on December 3, 2021. Listen to the first track, Emeline, here.
The Rec Room staff independently selected all of the stuff featured in this story.