Friday, March 21, 2003 | 5:18 a.m.
WEEKEND EDITION: March 23, 2003
Trivia time: Name the world's top-selling instrumentalist.
Probably one of jazz's legendary figures, a Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington or Miles Davis, right? Try again.
How about a popular classical musician, such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma, or a new age artist with worldwide appeal like Yanni? No dice.
To guess the answer, you must first visit the world of "smooth" jazz, where saxophonist Kenny G reigns supreme. Over the past 21 years his 15 albums have sold more than 70 million copies, making him the all-time instrumental champion.
Saturday, the 46-year-old Seattle native -- born Kenneth Gorelick -- brings his act to Las Vegas for an 8 p.m. show at the Aladdin Theatre for the Performing Arts.
Last year, Kenny G added to his catalog with a pair of releases, "Paradise" and his third Christmas CD, "Wishes: A Holiday Album."
He took time for a recent phone interview while contending with Los Angeles freeway traffic.
Las Vegas Sun: You play Las Vegas fairly regularly. Is it one of your preferred destinations?
Kenny G: I like coming to Vegas. It's really the one place you can go and you're kind of in the thick of things. Normally when I go somewhere, I go to my hotel and then I go to my gig. I'm not really out there, amongst people. Not that I don't want to be, but most places just don't lend themselves to that.
In Vegas when you're in a casino, people just come up and talk to you. It's a really cool way of connecting with people.
Sun: You've worked with Celine Dion before and even recorded your own version of her "Titanic" theme ("My Heart Will Go On"). Any plans to catch her new show while you're in town?
KG: I won't do it this time because I'm just coming in for my thing and then leaving. But she's going to be there for a few years, so there's no rush. That's a pretty cool thing that she's doing -- a steady gig, same place, same time, night after night.
Sun: Is that something you might like to try yourself someday?
KG: If I had the kind of following that she has I'd like to do it. A few years ago I did eight concerts in a row at (Los Angeles') Universal Amphitheater, which was pretty cool.
But I think playing somewhere for a year would be unbelievable. It would be so easy. You wouldn't even have to think about anything. The sound would be the exact same every night, I think the technicians would be able to take a night off and the show would probably go on fine. What an easy gig!
Sun: Were you surprised when you learned you had become the world's top-selling instrumentalist?
KG: It's very flattering, but I try to not let it affect me too much. I think that a lot of successful people who make the mistake of getting too excited about the highs can get too depressed about the lows.
Sun: But it must boggle your mind to have surpassed the John Coltranes and Miles Davises in record sales.
KG: That's the crazy part. It really is. I don't consider myself the best sax player in the world. So yeah, it's a little surreal.
One of my biggest influences was Grover Washington Jr., and there was a point where my records became more popular than his, and that didn't seem right. I mean, I'm the student. He's the master.
Sun: You've become a target for people who don't like smooth jazz. Does that bother you much?
KG: I read a cartoon about a guy who comes into a music store and asks the guy behind the counter, "Do you have any Kenny G music?" The guy goes, "Well, that's under difficult listening." And the other guy goes, "Don't you mean easy listening?" And the first guy goes, "Well, to each his own."
I thought that was very funny. It doesn't bother me.
Sun: What about the way critics have generally dismissed you as being too commercial?
KG: I've been doing this a long time, but until I started selling a lot of records the reviews were unbelievable. They couldn't have been more complimentary, talking about, "Oh he's innovative," and "This guy can really play."
And as the records started to sell, things started to change. I'm basically playing the same songs, the same way and all of a sudden the reviews change: "Oh, he's gone commercial." It's the same song I played two weeks ago! Now all of a sudden it's commercial because it happens to be popular?
Sun: Some jazz purists say your music doesn't feature enough improvisation for their tastes.
KG: Our live show is all improvisation. It's so much different than the CDs. I purposely don't put a lot of improvisation on the CDs because I want to be able to listen back to it a thousand times and like what I hear. But we go nuts live.
Sun: What types of things do you listen to these days?
KG: If I'm listening to music it's going to be the old, old jazz stuff, Cannonball Adderley, maybe some early John Coltrane. I wasn't into (Coltrane) when he went nuts and started playing outside. I could admire the musicianship of it, but I liked it when he was playing "Giant Steps." I mean, you could study that your whole life, that one solo that he happened to do that one day.
Ever since I was a kid, I've always had a solo that I'm working on. I sit down and transcribe what the guy plays, and I've got really good ears when it comes to that. So I write down somebody else's solo, play it a few times and then some of that seeps into my playing. I feel like that's how I get better.