Should Kenny G Make a Record with a Software Reconstruction of Stan Getz?

A few weeks ago, I sent you “12 Predictions for the Future of Music.” Prediction number 5 was a little creepy:

 “Dead musicians will start showing up everywhere—via holograms, biopics, deepfake vocals, and other technology-driven interfaces.”

So I can’t say I was surprised when I learned this morning about Kenny G’s new project—he is drawing on “very advanced modern technology” to release a duet with legendary saxophonist Stan Getz, who died in 1991.

Even so, this hit too close to home.

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In the late 1980s, I had the rare opportunity to see Stan Getz almost daily over a period of several years. I visited him often at his home, and we also shared a ‘jazz office” at Stanford University—a blessing for me, although Getz (I’ll admit it) deserved a better workspace on campus. He came by my classroom when I taught jazz history, and was a frequent visitor to the record label I was running out of a small office on Hamilton Avenue in downtown Palo Alto. I even had a chance to play piano with him in informal settings. In general, I consider this one of the most significant formative experiences in my life.

I often spoke to Getz about various musicians. I was a young jazz fan who had access to a legend, and pestered him constantly—I had a million questions for him. But I soon learned that Stan gave out compliments very sparingly. He was quick to criticize even famous musicians, and there were just a handful of jazz players he absolutely revered.

I won’t name the musicians Getz criticized—that’s a complex subject I prefer to avoid. But here’s a short list of musicians that Stan openly and lavishly praised in my presence: Miles Davis, Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bill Evans, and Woody Herman.

You can see it’s not a long list. As I’ve said, Getz was hard to please, and only a small group earned his total respect. And you may have noticed that the name Kenny G doesn’t appear on that list.

Of course, Stan must have known about Kenny G, who was selling millions of albums at the same moment. But Getz operated by different standards, and even if ‘smooth jazz’ musicians learned from him, there was nothing Getz could learn from them. I never bothered to ask Getz about Kenny G for the simple reason that I already had a pretty clear idea what he would say. If I had asked the question, he might even have laughed at me.

There’s heavy irony in the fact that Getz was recording for Concord Records back then—the same label now launching the new Kenny G project. But Concord was very different in those days. The label’s founder Carl Jefferson had made money as a car dealer before getting into the music business in 1972, and though you can mock that career move, I have enormous respect for Jefferson. He embraced the highest musical standards, hired the very best living jazz musicians, and never chased profits with gimmicky projects. The albums he recorded are timeless—and will be cherished by music lovers for decades to come.

Yet, for some strange reason, he isn’t even mentioned on the label’s Wikipedia page.

Concord was acquired by a consortium in 1999, four years after Jefferson’s death, and the headquarters soon moved from Concord, California to Beverly Hills. That gives you a clue about what was to come. We’ll load up the truck and move to Beverly. I’ll spare you a blow-by-blow account of what happened next—the birth of a new Concord label, showcasing exciting partnerships with Starbucks, etc. Many would consider it a grand success story, because the company did get bigger and bigger. But there’s a reason why it doesn’t even make the top ten in the Downbeat poll for best jazz label, although the company has swallowed up the rights to thousands of classic jazz recordings.

Leviathan can swallow Jonah, but that doesn’t make it a prophet.

I first met Getz shortly after he released the Pure Getz album on Concord. It’s a stellar record, and I can still remember exactly where I was the first time I heard it. I was driving down La Cienega Boulevard in Inglewood on a sad, rainy day, and the jazz radio deejay made indirect reference to the weather by playing the track “Come Rain or Come Shine” from the new Getz album. Every note Stan delivered just seemed so right that day—it still does—and I was genuinely starstruck when I met the famous saxophonist a few months later.

Perhaps some are happy to see Getz return to the Concord label. But let’s be honest, Getz isn’t really playing on this new track. Kenny G calls this recording a “duet with Stan Getz,” but the text of the announcement clearly states that the track relied on “sample notes to create this brand new melody never before played by Stan.”

In other words, Kenny G is even going beyond his previous duet with Louis Armstrong, which at least had Satchmo’s contribution to enjoy. The Getz ‘sound’ on this new recording is truly a Frankenstein conception, stitched together from bits and pieces.

Maybe the Getz estate agreed to this. But it’s still a bad idea. I love Getz’s sound on the sax, yet his greatness was more than a matter of tone and texture. He was a brilliant soloist, and I simply can’t support attaching his name to a “melody never before played” by him.

I’ll let you in on a secret. This kind of fakery is more common than you realize. I recently heard from a musician involved in the hologram recreation of a dead singer. I learned that the people constructing these holograms often lack the detailed data necessary to construct a true likeness of the original—so they hire a model who resembles the dead star, and use this stand-in to create the hologram.

In other words, the hologram isn’t even a recreation of the dead artist. It’s merely a fake version of an impersonator.

So Kenny G and Concord aren’t alone in these kinds of fabrications. The emerging business of bringing dead stars back to life requires a few unfortunate compromises—and if a bit of trickery is necessary, well that’s the price you pay to generate the big bucks. And I can safely predict that entertainment companies will continue to pursue creepy projects of this sort so long as they make money on them.

But that’s where we have a role.

If we don’t listen, the megacorporations controlling the music business will look elsewhere for profits. Maybe Concord Records will never regain the inspiring values that presided over its birth. That’s probably too much to hope for. But at least it might think twice before pursuing another Frankenstein record.