Kenny G star: Byron Lemon’s documentary tells the Canadian’s many sides

Byron Lemon’s seven years filming Kenny G were followed in the trailer for Kenny G: The Ballad of Kenny G, which premieres in the UK on 22 January

Canadian saxophonist Kenny G, known for singing his own musical eulogy to what he calls his “special sound”, has spent seven years in the documentary field in an attempt to define a whole genre of music in their own right.

Kenny G: The Ballad of Kenny G – trailer (Paul Carrack)

“I was kind of astonished that people liked it,” Kenny G, 61, says in the trailer for the film, which premiered in Monterey this week, making it the first film by Canadian director Byron Lemon to be shown in North America.

During this time, Lemon travelled around Canada in search of his subject, who launched his jazz career after joining the Montreal band Le Théâtre Dans L’Aube, in a relatively unwritten symphonic style.

For someone who usually performs on his own from the fourth chord, Kenny G gives an amazing story. From his early years spent both singing and playing songs, to the music he used to play on the street as a ten-year-old and recording on his sister’s record player as an amateur, his unrivalled career path is captured in Lemon’s film.

Kenny G: The Ballad of Kenny G – trailer (Lemon)

But, for a man who defines his own sound through “100 million musical hums”, the timeline of his career had both insecurities and redemptions. “I was looking for my difference, but the more I got asked that question the more my answer changed,” Kenny G says in the trailer.

Part one of Lemon’s portrait in jazz fashion runs until 8 March

Lemon’s documentary, which charts the progression of the left-handed musician’s career in the 1960s and 1970s – from street performer to a dozen successful studio albums, live performing with the Montreux Jazz Festival and Schönbrunn Palace Orchestra in Vienna and the saxophonist being named Musician of the Century by the Montreux Jazz Festival and making an appearance in Iron Man 2 – demonstrates the demands of that unique sound.

“Kenny G is the rare jazz musician whose sound, with all of its attributes, still works, despite some very stiff competition these days,” says Mark Lydon, principal trumpet and background vocalist with the Montreux Jazz Festival’s own Orchestra, as well as president of Montreux Jazz Festivals management.

Kenny G: The Ballad of Kenny G – trailer (Lemon)

Critics of Lemon’s film’s making have called it a “guilty pleasure”, as well as a homage to an “icon” that will be very appealing to members of his generation. To this end, Lemon has taken out a full front page advertisement in the Vancouver Sun, the UK’s Daily Telegraph and the Swiss press, to express a goal to depict the dark horse saxophonist for a new audience that remains unaware of his story.

G’s own summary of Lemon’s approach to making the film is to “paint a picture of me that no one’s ever seen before.” In that regard, what seems to be the cornerstone of the documentary is not to trace his life path but to simply portray him as “the king of his guitar.” Whether this will be enough to turn a generational focus and bring fans into his territory is what made his album so successful, Lemon says.

G’s life is touched on but not explored as it is in Lemon’s movie, which remains mostly devoted to his production of music. “What I’m telling Kenny G in the movie is why he’s important,” says Lemon, because “no one’s ever thought about” the saxophonist with that expansive range of sound, which can accommodate, for example, Bob Dylan’s “Oh Mercy” or Miles Davis’s “Brownsville Flyer.”

Ultimately, the filmmaker will present the presentation of Kenny G’s sounds in their natural context through the prism of Lemon’s own, and it’s in this respect that many music critics in Canada see Lemon’s film.

“The movie reminds you how good Kenny G really is,” says an Ottawa Sun reviewer. “He played well before Kenny G was made famous. We all missed out.”

But others do not quite see Lemon’s film as a whole picture, with music writer Roz Rowe Tweeting, “Lemon wrote the most interesting part of the film” and critic Richard Gibbons telling the Toronto Sun that it “would have been worth seeing if only to see Lemon.”

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