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Going home, and elsewhere, with Kenny G

The soft-jazz giant is the subject of an HBO Max documentary.

From "Listening to Kenny G."HBO

The subject of Penny Lane’s sly, thought-provoking, and subtly crafted documentary “Listening to Kenny G” lies on the opposite end of the musical spectrum from the band celebrated in Peter Jackson’s epic “The Beatles: Get Back.”

Or does it? The Beatles created a body of work that will shape the taste and inspire the imagination of generations to come. Saxophonist Kenny G, on the other hand, has sold more than 75 million records and is the best-selling instrumental artist of all time. He has established his own musical genre, Smooth Jazz, which has delighted countless fans for decades and soothed the tension of innumerable people around the world waiting on hold, in dentist offices, and in airports. In Chinese shopping malls, health clubs, train stations, and factories “Going Home,” from his 1990 album, “Kenny G Live,” is ubiquitously broadcast at the end of the day, like the patriotic music and speeches of another era, as a gentle reminder to the masses that it’s time to call it a day. For better or worse, he, too, can claim significant social and cultural impact.

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Kenny G in "Listening to Kenny G."HBO

So who can say which music is better or more significant? More than just a light-hearted look at a subject many might consider lightweight, Lane’s film, like her previous documentaries “Nuts!” (2016) and “Hail Satan?” (2019), turns a look at a seeming triviality into a contemplation of profound and nettlesome issues — in this case the nature of art, criticism, and good taste.

To tackle these questions Lane interviews music critics, scholars, and those prominent in the industry. They include Ben Ratliff, formerly of The New York Times, who describes Kenny G’s music as “a corporate attempt to soothe my nerves. And I don’t like that.” Jason King, a writer and New York University music professor, says, “He’s just part of the musical furniture of American culture since the late ‘80s.” Will Layman, of PopMatters, pursues the décor analogy further, saying “It’s just wallpaper.” (Perhaps underscoring his comments, Lane shoots these interviews in front of backdrops resembling wallpaper.)

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But Lane also listens to Kenny G himself, and not just to his music. Like that music, he appears to have no rough edges, is sweet-tempered, ingenuous, inoffensive, and without much depth. He is a perfectionist, whether doing his laundry, making an apple pie, flying a plane, playing golf, or investing in the stock market (he bought Starbucks shares early). “I want to be the best interview you’ve ever had!” he tells Lane.

Born Kenneth Gorelick, in Seattle, in 1956, into a comfortable middle-class home, he had a happy and privileged childhood. He joined his high school jazz band and sat in with his teacher’s ensemble at a club gig and got a standing ovation when he held a single note for 10 minutes. (Using his “circular breathing” method, he has since set the Guinness World Record for a sustained note — a little over 45 minutes.)

Kenny G in the studio, in "Listening to Kenny G."HBO

He attracted the attention of star-making producer Clive Davis, who at first had trouble marketing him (a music video of Kenny as a breakdancing waiter is hilarious, as he readily admits). But then he struck gold when he first appeared on “The Tonight Show,” in 1986. Defying the show’s booker, who had requested a different tune, he played instead a number he just wrote, “Songbird.” Released as a single, it soared to the top of the Billboard chart.

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Audiences loved him. Most critics, jazz purists, and jazz musicians disdained his work and even saw it as a travesty and a white appropriation of Black music. The outrage peaked in 1999 when he overdubbed himself playing along with a Louis Armstrong performance of “What a Wonderful World.” The guitarist Pat Metheny issued an expletive-laden screed calling it “musical necrophilia” and claimed that it was sacrilegious, a low point in the history of culture, and warned that we “‘let it slide’ at our own peril.”

But even those interviewees in the film most dismissive of Kenny G think that Metheny protested too much. “The irony is that it’s one of the best things he’s ever done,” says Layman.

Can Kenny G play “real” jazz? In the film he improvises riffs for Lane that sound pretty good to these inexpert ears. But when he takes her into the studio where he’s recording his latest album, “New Standards” (which includes a “virtual duet” with the late jazz great Stan Getz), he shows how he and his engineer laboriously augment and edit each track down to the individual note. “It may look like it’s sterile, but it’s from here,” he says, indicating his heart. “It doesn’t take away the feeling, it adds to it.”

“Listening to Kenny G” can be streamed on HBO Max. Go to bit.ly/3Grqp2b. The saxophonist will be appearing at the Emerson Colonial Theatre on Dec. 17.

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Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com