DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST:
And finally today, you might not recall where you heard him last - maybe on your streaming service, maybe at the dentist, maybe riding in an elevator, at the grocery store, maybe in your car. But you've definitely heard his music.
(SOUNDBITE OF KENNY G'S "SONGBIRD")
FOLKENFLIK: No need to adjust your radio or your Alexa. That, of course, is Kenny G - soprano saxophonist, smooth jazz icon and one of the best-selling instrumental artists of all time. He's the musical hero of legions of fans around the world, and yet he's also the source of inspiration for memes, mockery and more than his share of scathing reviews.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
KENNY G: Most of the music critics are not kind to me because most of the music critics aren't happy with my style of jazz. They think I've decided to play these kind of songs because I knew they would sell well and I could get rich and famous. If only I was that smart.
FOLKENFLIK: A new HBO documentary from director Penny Lane sets out to explore why Kenny G's music is both revered and reviled by so many. And in it, we get to hear from the man himself. Joining us now are Kenny Gorelick, better known as Kenny G, and director Penny Lane. Welcome to you both.
KENNY G: Thank you Dave. I'm here. Hi, Penny.
PENNY LANE: Hello.
FOLKENFLIK: So let's start with you, Kenny G. I'm curious, what was your reaction when Penny pitched you this idea?
KENNY G: Well, I love the way that she put it when she pitched it to me. She said this to me. She says, you know, your music is very popular. You've been immensely successful throughout the world, and that makes some people really angry. I'd like to make a movie about that. And I thought, you know what? That's a really good idea, Penny. Let's do it.
FOLKENFLIK: And, Penny, we heard your pitch. Why did you want to make the film?
LANE: Well, as Kenny just said, I've always found it very interesting but also funny that Kenny's music inspires such anger in certain people. And I just thought that trying to explore that and answer the question of why that would be would be productive and might be an interesting contribution to music criticism.
FOLKENFLIK: Kenny G, what do people not know about Kenneth Gorelick that they might have learned from this film?
KENNY G: Well, that's a good question. They probably don't know, you know, the intimacy of my work ethic and how much I practice and how I think about playing the saxophone. Maybe they learned that I took a lot of risks in my own way at the early part of my career when, you know, really, there was no home for the style of music I was doing, and I was doing the music just from my own heart. I mean, back in the, you know, mid-'80s we didn't have any of the things we have today - computers, cell phones. So there was no way to access what was going on in the world. So there was no way to find out, like, what music is being done here or there. I basically created my music in my own little space just because - just because it was inside of me.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, given what you're talking about, why do you think your music is so polarizing to so many people? Not that there are a lot of people in America or in the world who don't say, hey, that's great; it's that there are people who actively seem to dislike it.
KENNY G: You know, there are people in the world that really feel protective over certain things. And there are people that are very protective of traditional jazz and the style of traditional jazz - obviously don't play that style. I play a different style of music. But the thing is that the protectors of certain genres are going to be, you know, protective. So they must think that my music somehow is going to damage the reputation of traditional jazz, which it shouldn't have any effect on anything. I mean, I'm just playing my instrument the way I play it. I play it differently than other people play it. I write songs that are different. And I do what I do. And everyone's got a right to say what they want to say. I don't mind that they say what they say. You know, it's just - it doesn't affect how I look at my music. And they have every right to be protective if that's what they want to do. I've got other things to do, which is create and practice. So I work on that stuff. And Penny knows.
FOLKENFLIK: Penny knows. So, you know, Kenny, there's this saying, if you can't say something nice, come sit next to me. Your friend Penny over there invited in a whole bunch of high-profile critics who, let's be honest, were far from kind in assessing your music. We'll play a clip from one of those critics here. His name's Will Layman.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MUSIC BOX: LISTENING TO KENNY G")
WILL LAYMAN: He makes nice music for nice people. And I don't suppose I should begrudge anybody coming home from their job and relaxing to that. What it makes me feel is that it's just wallpaper. I don't know. I just want to believe I'm better than that.
FOLKENFLIK: So, Kenny G, what do you feel? What goes in your mind when you hear that?
KENNY G: OK, that guy is never coming to my concert, so - I can tell you that for a fact - well, not for a fact. I would just imagine.
KENNY G: So he has no idea what kind of a musician I am. He's hearing a melody that I play, and he's judging me on all that just because it doesn't appeal to him. He doesn't - that music doesn't appeal to him. So that's OK. That's fine. It didn't hurt - that didn't hurt my feelings at all, by the way, Dave. So don't worry about it. Play as much of that as you want.
FOLKENFLIK: So, Penny, tell us why it was important to you to include the voice of critics like Will Layman and others.
LANE: Yeah. Well, I actually started with the idea of critics. I was trying to think of a subject that would allow me to explore a conflict in taste that had, like, some element - like, something that mattered, I guess, something that mattered to people a lot, so they had a lot of passion about it. And so at first, I thought about Kenny as more like an object, like a screen that I could project this conflict onto. What surprised me was meeting Kenny and then getting to know him, and then he's so charismatic and interesting that he started taking up more and more of the film, which really was to the benefit of the film in many ways. But initially I was mostly interested in the criticism. I was kind of imagining a conflict between fans and critics. But then Kenny entered the picture, and he became the center of the film in many ways for me - well, he really just is.
FOLKENFLIK: How surprised were you by how self-aware Kenny G is? Like, Kenny, I got to say, you are aware of all of it. And, like, you seem kind of resilient and chipper throughout, you know, to a rather amazing extent. Penny Lane, how surprised were you by that in him?
LANE: Well, it's remarkable. I don't know anyone else like Kenny. Kenny is an extremely optimistic, happy person. And most of the artists that I know are quite tormented and neurotic. So it was really a nice change of pace (laughter).
FOLKENFLIK: Kenny G, you obviously have fans who are also very ardent - not just sort of tolerating but embracing your music. We hear from them in the film, too. Why do you think your music inspires such intensity and such strong feelings?
KENNY G: Well, you mean strong feelings on the positive side or negative side?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, this time I'm talking about such affection and such strong bonds.
KENNY G: OK. Well, this is a wonderful question because it's like, what makes a person's heart sing? How does something like love get into a person's heart? I mean, you can't really say. There's not a list of ingredients, but, you know, if somebody is affected by something, yeah, they're going to be very strong in the way that they say how much they love it. So there you go.
FOLKENFLIK: So this last question for both you - Penny, what do you hope audiences take away from your documentary?
LANE: I think ultimately this film is about how music is so tied deeply to our personal sense of identity and to our social allegiances. And I want people to really think about that not because I'm trying to change it. I just think occasionally it's good to remember that when you attack a particular artist or a work of art, you're sort of attacking the people who love that. You know, you're not doing it on purpose. There's something about music that is just so deeply tied to how we consider who we are and how we consider how other people are.
FOLKENFLIK: And what about you, Kenny? What does Kenny G or Kenneth Gorelick want people to take away from this?
LANE: Kenny just wants everyone to know how much he practices. I already know what he's going to say (laughter).
KENNY G: Thank you, Penny.
FOLKENFLIK: Look; you really cannot watch this movie and not know how much this guy practices. I mean, whatever you take part in - I mean, it's pretty clear to me, Kenny, that you practice even folding your laundry just so, so that everything is precise.
KENNY G: Well, thank you. I appreciate that. And, by the way, I love to practice. So it's fun for me. It's not like I'm - I don't want anyone feeling sorry for me that I'm working all that hard. This is really a pleasure. But I really - you know, for me, the thing that makes me feel proud is the message that I'm doing something that I just felt was right for me in the way that I play and the way that I compose, just the way that I've managed my career and the decisions I've made. And I try not to let the outside world influence me because I just ultimately feel like I know what's best for me, and I'm trying to do my very, very best.
So if people somehow get the message that, you know, what's really in my heart is this, and it may take me 20 years to, you know, get accomplished at that thing that I know is the right thing for me, but I'm going to put the time in - if they have the opportunity to do that, Dave - and I'm not saying everybody will, but if you do, maybe the message is stick with what you love. Just like I wrote in the movie, practice, practice, practice. And probably great things are going to happen.
And even if you don't have, let's say, the same kind of commercial success that I've had - which, again, was not my motivation - you're going to be feeling great about your life because you've done what you wanted to do. And you've accomplished it the way you've wanted to accomplish. And that, to me, is the ultimate happiness and peace that you would get in your life if you can do that. And, boy, not only is it great along the way 'cause you're doing what you love, but at the end of it, you're so good at what you love to do, your life is probably going to be well taken care of.
FOLKENFLIK: We've been hearing musician Kenny G and the director Penny Lane. Her new documentary, "Listening To Kenny G," is streaming right now on HBO Max. Thanks, guys.
LANE: Thank you. This was super-fun.
KENNY G: Thank you, Dave - appreciate it. And, Penny, it's always great to be with you.
(SOUNDBITE OF KENNY G'S "GOING HOME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.