The easygoing, smooth jazz star Kenny G makes an unlikely rebel. But he had to put his sax down when his longtime record label insisted that he do yet another album of standards.
The G-man saw no point in following other older artists like Rod Stewart and Barry Manilow down the well-worn path of playing cover tunes. So he arranged an amicable divorce from Arista Records in order to return to making original music.
"All my success in the past ... have always been my original compositions played the way that I play and people seem to connect with that," said Kenny G, in a telephone interview from his Malibu, California, home. "I lost sight of that a little bit and I'm glad to be going back to my roots and re-establishing the integrity that I've had in my music.
His new CD "Rhythm & Romance" -- his debut for Concord/Starbucks Entertainment -- is not only the 51-year-old saxophonist's first album of original music since 2002, but also finds him exploring new territory in Latin music. His inspiration came from the jazz bossa nova recordings by Cannonball Adderley and Stan Getz that the young Kenny Gorelick heard growing up in Seattle.
"I love the way the saxophone feels with a Latin rhythm, and I felt maybe I can do something like that, but of course do my thing and have it sound different than anything else," he said. "You've got to continually try to reinvent yourself.
"I always thought that my music could have a little bit more rhythm and a little less ballads," he added. "There's a lot of really uptempo songs ... and much more improvisation on this record ... There's more rhythm here than anything I've ever done but yet it's still romantic."
The new record marks the end of his 25-year relationship with music mogul Clive Davis, who first spotted the saxophonist when he was a sideman in Jeff Lorber's jazz-fusion band and released his self-titled debut album in 1982.
Their partnership resulted in 26 albums -- with global sales totaling more than 75 million records -- including his breakthrough 1986 "Duotones," which went multi-platinum thanks largely to the success of the sultry "Songbird"; the Grammy-winning 1992 "Breathless," the all-time best-selling instrumental album; and 1994's "Miracles: The Holiday Album," which put the Jewish musician right behind Elvis Presley on the list of top-selling Christmas albums in the United States.
But more recently the saxophonist says he felt "handcuffed" by having to play cover tunes on which he couldn't stray far from the melody. According to Kenny G, Arista insisted on him doing standards albums such as the 2006 "I'm in the Mood For Love: The Most Romantic Melodies of All Time."
"Unfortunately, I fell into a category with Arista of, 'Well, you can't really do original material any more,' " he said. "It was tough to convince them that I'm not a Barry Manilow or a Rod Stewart who had tremendous success with their cover tunes. ... I really don't think the world was waiting for me to do my instrumental version of that same idea."
"I knew that doing a Latin album of original material was going to be an amazing project ... but Clive and the guys at Arista were not interested at all," he added. "I said, well I have to do this album so we're going to have to get a friendly divorce."
The saxophonist and his longtime collaborator, pianist Walter Afanasieff, composed a collection of love songs with a Latin twist, including such spicy uptempo tunes as "Sax-o-Loco" and "Salsa Kenny." The saxophonist also turned to his friend, actor-comedian George Lopez, who suggested the only two Latin standards among the 12 tracks -- "Sabor A Mi" and "Besame Mucho."
In the studio, the saxophonist was joined by Latin music stars, including guitarist Ramon Stagnaro; percussionists Michito Sanchez and Paulinho Da Costa; and former Weather Report drummer Alex Acuna, who added samba, salsa and bossa nova rhythms to fit each melody.
"Personally, I think that this is one of the best albums that Kenny has done in years," said Ken Lombard, president of Starbucks Entertainment. "It's kind of a return for Kenny back to doing original music that is really what he built his reputation and credibility about."
Kenny G says he's fortunate his parents helped develop his sense of self-esteem which has enabled him to laugh along with all the jokes about his music being best suited for elevators, dental offices and insomniacs. When he went into the studio to record "Rhythm & Romance," he even came up with his own humorous catch phrase to loosen things up: "I'm taking my music out of the elevator and south of the border."
"People can tell when somebody's doing something from their heart or whether they're doing it from their brain," he said. "Fortunately for me, I sleep well at night because I know that I've always played the best that I can ... and a lot of people seem to like what I do."