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Herb Sundays 65: Sam Gendel
The multi-instrumentalist zeroes in on jazz saxophonist Kenny Garrett to luminous effect.
My seventh grade band director gave me Kenny Garrett’s album Simply Said as a gift. It is why I began playing soprano saxophone. Also, one time I was at a jam session and, after hearing me play, someone asked if I listened to Kenny Garrett. So after that session I went home and deleted all of his music off my hard drive.
- Sam Gendel
We love a good concept Herb mix and this has sort of a dreamy festive quality. This one came after the Season Four buzzer and I was tempted to move to next year/next season but a voice inside me said “this is the holiday mix you need to share” and I started the mailer. True to his nonconformist nature as a musician, the great Sam Gendel delivers our first playlist that is devoted to one artist. Jazz saxophonist Kenny Garrett is the focus here (except the one Miles Davis live cover where Garrett features heavily). Sam’s sequence bunches songs from the same album together, a VERY COOL affront to demonstrating curatorial prowess.
I’m gonna run Sam's bio verbatim cause it's so tight (plagiarism was the original AI), there’s no room to freak it:
“Sam Gendel is a musician and producer living in Los Angeles, California. He is most known for his work with the saxophone, though he is proficient on multiple instruments. His work is diverse and includes significant collaborations with a wide range of artists including Ry Cooder, Blake Mills, Sam Amidon, Laurie Anderson, Perfume Genius, Moses Sumney, Knower, Vampire Weekend, Mach-Hommy, and inc. no world”.
Gendel has recorded for a number of v. compelling record labels including Leaving Records, Psychic Hotline, Terrible, Unseen Worlds, Ulyssa, and the immortal Nonesuch. His releases arrive haphazardly, with scant respect for industry rules about “cannibalizing” your own product which is very refreshing. Even his albums can’t be contained: 2021’s Fresh Bread (which I own on triple cassette, natch, like a fuckin’ herb) was a 52-song, 224-minute monster and this year’s 34-track SUPERSTORE is equally unhinged.
Friendship seems like Sam’s thing, with repeated collaborations with various musicians, and most commonly with Sam Wilkes, a fellow jazz-not-jazz dude who gets surgical with his Fender precision bass. On playing with others Gendel sez: “I don’t play live very much, I just play with other people. That’s how I prefer it. I dread playing solo shows right up until I get on stage.”
Wilkes, who is thirty-one, grew up in Connecticut, and Gendel, who is thirty-five, grew up in central California. Both were drawn to Los Angeles by way of the jazz program at the University of Southern California. They turned out to have mixed feelings about studying jazz in a university setting. And maybe they had mixed feelings, too, about being tied to a tradition that arouses as much strong feeling—and, worse, as much weak feeling—as jazz does.
A lot is discussed how we as listeners are post-genre these days. Genres now are vibes or playlists or just feelings. Sam is most closely associated with jazz but sort of shrugs it off. Like Herb 50 Félicia Atkinson, there’s a painterly quality at play in his work. Some songs are doodles with a knowing sense of rightness. Foreshortened jazz? Bucked up muzak? Always something flirty and fun when Sam is around.
DR: Do you have people around you trying in vain to put you on a more traditional path?
SG: Anyone who had an interest in that gave up a long time ago. It ain’t gonna happen. I’m more interested in throwing ideas out and seeing where the ceiling is. I haven’t hit it yet. Putting out a “normal” album just doesn’t work for me, if it did I’d be doing it. There’s such a limited way of looking at humans sharing things. It’s all made up! I just do what naturally comes to my mind. I don’t have the fear anymore. I just do it and say, ‘This is the thing.’ Luckily people understand and are down to help me achieve that.
And then the J word was broached:
What is your relationship to jazz at this stage? You’ve released albums through traditional labels like Nonesuch but I’ve also seen interviews where you have distanced yourself from the genre tag. Do you mind when people call you a jazz artist?
I guess it’s just another part of the history of music. I got caught by jazz at an early age so it’s where I was led by my mind and my ear. It just happened outside of my understanding, it just happened. Jazz is just a language within another broader language. I’m a curious person and music offers up endless possibilities for me. I guess I can’t escape jazz. It’s what hits people first and they hear what they hear. I hope people stop thinking that way. You either like it or you don’t. Even the greatest jazz musicians in history would say, ‘it’s either good or it’s not.’ That still applies, especially in this age of music. Right now I’m much more drawn to the things I don’t understand. I don’t need to hear endless saxophone solos these days.
And so we get a Garrett playlist, lots of saxy sax. It’s really great. I’ve never met Gendel (this mix was achieved thanks to his lovely manager Foye Johnson, an actual saint you must imagine), but I have a strong fan relationship with him. You sense he's prob fun to share text threads with, which would drift toward conspiracy theories but then safely onto some vintage Sesame Street stuff.
Thanks for reading this year. Share Herb Sundays with a friend if you want. Or don’t. Keep it like a secret. Just you and me.
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