Kenny G follows his instincts when trying to decide his setlist. For this latest A.C. appearance, Kenny G, backed by a five-piece band, will be adding holiday tunes to his wide repertoire, which spans pop, R&B, jazz and Latin.
“It’s always tricky to pick the right songs on the right evening,” says the veteran saxophonist, who performs 9 p.m. Friday, Dec. 20, at Harrah’s Resort in Atlantic City.
“We don’t have any words, so it’s not like people are going to get ideas how to feel. It’s all based on tempo and tone. It’s always a challenge, but I’ve been doing it a long time, so I have a good feel for it.”
Those instincts have served the Grammy-winner well over the past three decades. The Seattle native has released some two dozen albums, topping the Billboard contemporary jazz chart a dozen times, and collaborating with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Whitney Houston to Robin Thicke.
Ahead of his show, Kenny G talks about his world music explorations, trying to master the Bossa Nova and his big break on “The Tonight Show” 25 years ago.
Question: Your last album, “Namaste,” was one of your more unusual projects, a collaboration with Rahul Sharma, an Indian master of the 100-string santoor. How did it come together?
Answer: I met him when I played a gig down there. He played me some of his music — I was intrigued. We continued the collaboration. We sent files back and forth from L.A. to Mumbai. The way the modern world works, you can do sessions without ever leaving your home. We used modern technology to our advantage.
Q: Do you plan to continue in this world music direction?
A: I’m always open to anything. I just got back from South Korea — my music is really popular there. I’m thinking about doing an album of Korean songs. I don’t think it will be released in the States, but over there it would do really, really well. I’m always interested in doing music that’s not my norm.
Q: Your next project puts you on more likely turf — doing a Bossa Nova record. What’s the challenge in taking on a familiar form?
A: I’m trying to play the songs and write music that’s very reminiscent of the music they did in the ’50s — real classic Bossa Novas and an old-style of playing. I’m working on “The Girl from Ipanema,” which is like the standard of all standards. If I don’t play it as well as (jazz saxophone great) Stan Getz did, I don’t feel like I should release it. I’m going to take my time and work on tone and sound and notes.
Q: On your recent album “Heart and Soul” you stretched yourself in a different way by working with dance-pop singer Robin Thicke. What prompted that duet?
A: It’s important to do all sorts of stuff that somehow gets some exposure and notoriety. You have to do something that’s different. It has to be something that musically works for me, and I have to feel it. Definitely it’s a stretch — it’s not just me going into my studio and recording my songs the way I have for years and years.
Q: You’re now on Concord Records, a traditional jazz label. Why was it the right place for you?
A: There’s a lot of reasons why we all wanted to work together. They’re happy that I do things that are not just mainstream. They like the different twists that I throw in my CDs. I’m comfortable being at Concord. If I say want to be looking at doing a Stan Getz song — they get that. Rather than me trying to convince a label I’m trying to do some kind of instrumental, they know all about it.
Q: In 1988, you got your big break on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,” but it almost didn’t happen because you insisted on doing an all-instrumental performance. Has it gotten any easier to be an instrumentalist?
A: I never felt I had to do the norm. With a lot of instrumentalists that came out, there were a lot of background vocals, and a little sax here and there. I was fighting against a whole machine that didn’t how to do pure instrumental songs on a record. After “The Tonight Show” performance, that changed everybody’s minds. That was a really big moment there.
Adding the right voice to Kenny G’s music
Through his career, Kenny G has collaborated with some of the best-known voices in pop, notably Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston and Barbra Streisand.
The saxophonist asks himself some key questions before saying yes to a duet: “Do I want the experience of being around that person? Am I a fan of their music? Do I like the song? Do I feel like I can do something of value to this particular music?”
Sometimes, the answer is no, as when he was asked to contribute to a cover of “Endless Love,” with Mariah Carey and Luther Vandross, left.
“I didn’t hear one second of a spot for me to play,” he says. “I regret passing (on it). I never actually recorded with Luther before. Not that I don’t like Mariah Carey, I’m a fan of her singing. But I was just a huge fan of Luther’s and never got to record anything with him.”