Penny Lane’s Listening to Kenny G is a work of discursive extrapolation, a probing work that finds in the artist’s divisiveness some interesting threads worth pulling.
Saxophonist Kenneth Bruce Gorelick aka Kenny G was, at one time, possibly the most well-known jazz musician in the world (he was Bill Clinton’s fav) and still remains the best-selling instrumentalist of all time — two embarrassing factoids that seem impossible to reconcile — partly because his music has become so ingrained within popular culture. His playing style and signature sound, which long-time hater Paul Metheny once christened as “lame-ass, jive, pseudo bluesy, out-of-tune, noodling”, has touched the lives of millions of listeners, yet has also become synonymous with the type of tunes heard at a doctor’s office. It’s calming, but has a slight pulse; it’s inoffensive, but still technically proficient enough to warrant a listen — the sort of sound that lulls one into a passive state. Gorelick’s not the greatest saxophone player in the world, but he’s certainly sold more records than whoever is — which makes a lot of people justifiably very angry. His fame has been fueled by a sorta “love him or hate him” mentality that sharply divides critics and listeners, a strict dichotomy that becomes the central crux of Penny Lane’s Listening to Kenny G.
Lane’s documentary isn’t interested in making qualitative assessments of the man’s art — if anything, it’s a bit too defensive of it on the basis that since others like it, there must be some merit; a faux-populist sentiment that reinforces the hegemony. Rather, Listening positions it within a context to provide some baseline validity to the strongly-worded sentiments being launched in either critical direction, largely attributing Gorelick’s early success to the ingenious PR tactics Clive Davis employed to secure his radio play — the nebulous quality of his music allowed push on R&B, Pop, and Jazz stations — with Kenny himself noting that this initial marketing pushed him as a sort of racially ambiguous performer. When pressed elsewhere on the privileges his white skin color has afforded him within a Black art form, Gorelick admits he hasn’t given the subject much thought — though he is willing to concede it has “probably” helped him. This eventually becomes the work’s more interesting internal conflict and throughline: that amidst a discourse on cultural racism and artistic gentrification, Gorelick seems blissfully unaware (or is generally lacking in any interpersonal awareness) of the many ways that his mere presence is something of a microaggression. He truly believes that he deserves all the recognition he’s received because he practices for three hours a day; in his mind, this is hard work paying off, end of the story. When visiting his old high school, he’s asked to leave some words of wisdom for the students; he writes on a wall to “practice, practice, practice,” an obsessive attitude he brings to his other hobbies (golf and aviation being the big two), all of which he treats with this same completionist mentality. He doesn’t care about following traditions or respecting history — most cogently presented when he explains the rationale behind that post-mortem Louis Armstrong collab, which resulted in the aforementioned Metheny tirade — and is still around today because he’s willing to play into the joke, all while continuing to successfully maneuver through correct distribution and media channels (that hot guest appearance on that Ye track, which is further expounded on here, anyone?). It’s in these moments where Lane fulfills the titular promise of her work: by making the act of listening to Kenny G — musician and human being — a singularly probing practice in and of itself.
You can stream Penny Lane’s Listening to Kenny G on HBO Max beginning on December 2.
Originally published as part of DOC NYC 2021 — Dispatch 2.