With a career spanning over 40 years, American saxophonist Kenny G often finds himself the butt of a joke; “Saturday Night Live,” “South Park” and “Family Guy” have all taken turns making fun of the smooth jazz legend. But honestly, the joke’s on us. Not only is Kenny G the biggest-selling instrumental musician of the modern era and one of the best-selling artists of all time, he’s also surprisingly current—collaborating with new pop stars and rappers, appearing on popular television programs and packing venues on latest tour.
His new album “Brazilian Nights,” is a tribute to the masters of bossa nova, and he recently graced Mississippi with a performance at the Beau Rivage in Biloxi on Sept. 2. DIME recently caught up with Kenny G to discuss his latest record, touring, working with Katy Perry, performing with John Oliver and what he fears the most.
Emily Cegielski: I read somewhere that you’ve always been in love with bossa nova, and I’m wondering what took you so long to get around to making this album?
Kenny G: You know I never thought about making a bossa nova record until recently. I don’t know why, honestly. You’re right. Why did it take so long? Because I’ve loved it for so long… I guess I just felt like it was time to try it. Maybe I needed to practice for 15 more years to be able to make it right, I don’t know!
EC: One of your more recent collaborations might be the one that introduced you to most of our readers — and I’m talking about your appearance in Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night” music video. How did that come about?
KG: I don’t know! My manager called me and said they wanted me to be in the video, and it happened to be filming like 10 minutes from my house. “So, just drive over there!” I said, “OK!” So, I drive over there, and I see Katy Perry and I talk to her and I talk to her people, and they just kind of put me in a white suit and I just went and did it.
EC: It was pretty great!
KG: It was great! Yeah, it was really fun and everybody was cool. People were nice. She was super nice, like exceptionally nice. I haven’t talked to her since then, but I have a really good impression of her. So she made a very good first impression, that’s for sure.
EC: What are some of your other favorite musical collaborations?
KG: Well, if you’re looking at the younger ones, I’ve done something with Warren G recently on one of his rap tunes. I don’t know, I’ve done a lot of collaborations, so it’s been cool. I can’t tell you which one was the best, but they were all cool. I played on Frank Sinatra’s record. I think even young people like Frank Sinatra. So, I did that, that’s pretty cool. Foster the People, I did something with them on Saturday Night Live recently.
EC: You also appeared last year on “Last Week Tonight,” which was by far one of my all-time favorite segments ever, and John Oliver called you “an immortal being untethered from space and time floating endlessly on an eternal wave of pure smoothness….”
KG: (Laughing) That’s exactly what he said!
EC: That is my favorite quote ever about you because I personally think it’s very accurate.
KG: So sweet! It was so fun to do that stuff. I’m a huge fan of his. I watch his show every weekend, every Sunday night. If I’m not home, I’ve got it on my DirectTV, so I record it. And he really makes me laugh. I mean, there’s not a lot of people who can make me laugh. He’s great, and he was fun, and the show was cool. It was collaborative. We were trying to figure out if there were different things we could do with the arrangement on that song. So we talked about how to do it and it was really fun to be part of it. They made it easy, and he was so funny to me. I was really concentrating not to laugh while I was playing. That was my big challenge.
EC: I would imagine that’s pretty hard.
KG: Especially when he’s screaming in my ear while I’m playing, but we rehearsed it. So at least at the rehearsal, I laughed, but since I knew it was coming, when we really actually taped it, I thought ‘OK, I already expect him to be screaming at me and trying to say funny things,’ so I knew I could hold it together.
EC: I actually learned about you on that show. I had no idea about your song in China. [Kenny G’s recording “Going Home” is the country’s unofficial national closing song for businesses throughout China.] How does that affect you when you go over to play in China? I know you love Asia, and you play there a lot, so do you have a massive fan base there?
KG: Massive, yeah. I’m going to be there in two weeks. We’re going back to China. I know we’re playing cities that I’ve never been to, and we’ve been to a lot of cities in China, so it’s going to be cool. We may be going to places where they’ve never had a Western artist play.
EC: What’s you’re favorite part about playing in China?
KG: Just going to a faraway land and experiencing the culture. I love that. If young people are reading this, the main thing you can do is if you have the chance, and you’re able to travel, that’s the great thing, that teaches you a lot about life. Your eyes are opened up and you can see that the world is full of people and full of different ways of doing things and it just makes you a much better person. So I love traveling for that reason, and, you know, China is such a different culture than us that it’s fun to experience the crazy foods that they eat over there, and, yeah, it’s great. The language is really challenging. Speaking Chinese is very tough… I don’t even know how they do it.
EC: Speaking of other cultures, you performed in Mississippi last month, which is my home state and where DIME is based… have you performed in the South a lot?
KG: Yeah, over the years, many times, many times. We played at the Beau Rivage, and we’ve played there before many times. It’s a super fun place to play. We love that gig. It’s a great gig.
EC: The theme of this issue is actually fear, so I have to ask — What could possibly scare you as one of the most successful musicians around?
KG: Fear, wow, you’re going right to the main emotions. That’s one of the bottom emotions everything else is stemmed off of. If you’re fearful, you can show it by being angry or nervous or all of these other things that really stem from fear. So what scares me? That’s crazy… I guess I would be fearful of something bad happening to my kids. I would be fearful of that. Other than that, I’m not really scared of much. I mean, I’m not scared of failing. I’m not scared of that at all. I’m not scared of trying to do stuff. I’m not really scared of people… like if somebody was going to come and kick my ass, Iike some big guy, I wouldn’t really be scared, I’d just be kind of like ‘what can I do to minimize the damage that’s going to happen to me.’ But I wouldn’t really be scared. Pretty much, I think fear is mainly about my loved ones and something really bad happening to them that I couldn’t do anything about.