The single "Songbird" was first released by the saxophonist Kenny G, a.k.a. Kenny Gorelick, in 1986 on the album Duotones. "Songbird" is a purely instrumental track that is not easy to classify in terms of genre. Hated by jazz purists on account of its lack of true jazz aesthetic, "Songbird" stylistically inhabits the borderlands between jazz and elevator music. The conventionally accepted definition of Kenny G's music is "smooth jazz" (it has also been called "Yuppie jazz"), although some people may be uncomfortable with the similarity between the terms "smooth jazz" and "cool jazz," the post-bebop style pioneered by Miles Davis starting with the Birth of the Cool album in 1957, an attempt to blend Classical and jazz influences and make bebop more accessible to the general listening public. This seems to be the only aspect of Davis' legacy that Kenny G has followed: maximum accessibility. Most other stylistically important conventions that make jazz what it is (the fundamental emphasis on improvisation, for instance) have been abandoned in Kenny G's soporific brand of "jazz."
In an interview widely discussed and publicized on YouTube, the foremost jazz guitarist Pat Metheny said that Kenny G is responsible for putting many people off jazz. "I can understand why people don't like jazz, because right now, sometimes you say the word 'jazz' and people think of some of the worst music on earth. Like, for instance, Kenny G. I mean, there's nothing more stupid than that – let's face it, it's the dumbest music there ever could possibly be in the history of human beings. There could never be music any worse than that. And now people think that that's what jazz is. That's not what jazz is, at all."
In another interview, Metheny stated that Kenny G's 1999 single "What a Wonderful World (feat. Louis Armstrong)," in which Kenny G overdubbed himself over the jazz legend, was an act of "musical necrophilia." Folk-rocker Richard Thompson wrote a song in response to Pat Metheny's outspoken stance against Kenny G called "I agree with Pat Metheny." The lyrics go, "I agree with Pat Metheny, Kenny's talents are too teeny, he deserves the crap he's going to get. Overdubbed himself on Louis, what a musical chop-suey, raised his head above the parapet."
Kenny G's tack is refusing to categorize his music, which gives him some impunity from jazz critics. "If somebody calls me a jazz musician, I'm very flattered," he said.
Despite the disdain of the jazz world's elite, this song and album still gained mass favor among the listening public. Duotones ranked #1 on the Contemporary Jazz Albums chart and #5 on the Jazz Albums chart, and "Songbird" was particularly popular among the roving masses, coming in at #3 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary charts, #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, and #23 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. Its success was somewhat of an anomaly, considering that instrumental tracks very rarely reach notable positions on the Billboard charts.
What MTV did for Duran Duran, VH1 did for Kenny G. Launched in 1985 as an adult version of MTV, VH1 had a substantial audience by 1987, when they put the video for "Songbird" in hot rotation. When the song was played on the radio, listeners had no idea who was performing it or what it was called, but with the video, we could see Kenny G (and his flowing hair) along with the title at the beginning and end of the clip. The video cost just $30,000 to make, and earned a fabulous return as record stores reported customers coming in looking for the record by "that guy playing saxophone on the beach."
Kenny G played a soprano saxophone on this song, which is sometimes confused for a clarinet. The soprano sax is straight, unlike larger saxophones that are played vertically.
This was the first hit for Kenny G, who has had remarkable success on the Hot 100. While "Songbird" remains his only UK hit, he has placed 11 songs on the US Hot 100, including "Silhouette" (#13, 1988), "By the Time This Night Is Over" (#25, 1993, featuring Peabo Bryson), and his "Millennium Mix" cover of "Auld Lang Syne
" (#7, 1999).
Kenny was 31 when Duotones
was released. He quickly went from driving the van to club gigs to selling out theaters.
The word "duotone" is conventionally used in the photographic industry to refer to a photograph in which only two colour tones (or half-tones) are used to reproduce the picture. Half-tones have a musical equivalent which Kenny G must be alluding to by naming his album Duotones: a half-tone, otherwise known as a semitone, refers to the half step between two notes in a traditional western scale system. Whether there is a deeper meaning to this choice of name is unclear, and doubtful.
Kenny G's musical career began in 1976 when he started playing in Barry White's Love Unlimited Orchestra. Some fun facts:
Kenny G appeared in the 1997 Guinness Book of World Records for playing the longest note (45 minutes and 47 seconds - later broken).
In an interview, Kenny G revealed that he is unable to read music, and is totally unfamiliar with jazz notation. He also has no knowledge of the jazz standard repertoire.
Kenny G is one of the original investors in the Starbucks coffee chain.
This song has been used in the movies Pretty Woman, Cars, and The Master of Disguise, and also the TV shows Psych and The Big Bang Theory.
In the 2008 novel The Silver Linings Playbook
by Matthew Quick, this is the wedding song of the main character, Pat, who then hears it playing when he catches his wife cheating. The song then sends him into a rage every time he hears it, as he struggles to control his mental disorder.
When the book was adapted into a film (starring Bradley Cooper) in 2012, the song was changed to "My Cherie Amour
" by Stevie Wonder.