Music Review

The Moment (1996)

EW's GRADE
B

Details Lead Performance: Kenny G; Genres: Instrumental, Jazz

Critics really get off on the visceral impact of edgy, aggressive music. Give 'em guitars that will peel paint off the walls and synths that can rip through ears like a rusty fishhook, and you're almost guaranteed a rave review. But frankly, not all listeners want their paint peeled or ears ripped, thank you very much. These folks would rather hear something soothing and tuneful — music as comfortable as an old shirt. And Kenny G has made millions providing it for them.

Naturally, this hasn't exactly earned him critical praise: His music has been called everything from bland as oatmeal to the jazz equivalent of a lobotomy. Some critics have even gone so far as to call the G-man a disgrace to the saxophone, as if the instrument of Coltrane and Shorter had somehow been defiled by G's fondness for easy-listening fare.

But beating up on Kenny G for not being a jazzman misses the point. His music isn't about cerebral intensity or improvisatory invention — it's about melody. And to that end, The Moment is everything a beleaguered pop fan could want. Not only does it emphasize mood over momentum and tenderness over tension, but it wraps each engaging melody in arrangements that seem soft no matter how high the volume.

From the dreamy chorus of the title tune to the prayerful refrain of ''Innocence,'' listening to The Moment is like settling into a comfy chair. Everything on the album is set to a slow simmer. It generally takes G a couple choruses to get to the improvised ''solo,'' and even then, he never quite lets things come to a boil. It's not listening music so much as a kind of aural atmosphere, the sort people put on to let their minds wander and cares drift away.

In that sense, it's a mistake to compare G's gentle piping with the gripping fare the griping critics prefer, as his music is more at home whispering suggestions the way film music does. Cue up the Celtic-flavored ''The Champion's Theme,'' for instance, and you can almost see some plucky Irish hero returning to his copper-haired colleen, while the jaunty ''Eastside Jam,'' with its bluesy guitar and lazy, synth-based groove, could easily pass for the theme from some urban comedy.

Ambiance is far more important than content on Moment. Even as the song ''Havana'' wafts from the speakers like cigar smoke, G and coproducer Walter Afanasieff (Mariah Carey, Michael Bolton) avoid the specifics of Cuban jazz. Likewise, though ''Moonlight'' recalls the pop jazz of the early '60s, there's nothing terribly jazzy about what G plays; he seems less interested in how far improvisation can take him than in how far his repetitive approach can take the tune.

Maybe that's why Kenny G thinks not like an instrumentalist so much as a singer. Listening to the way he applies his breathy tone and carefully considered phrasing to the dreamily descending melody of ''The Moment,'' it's hard not to think of Johnny Mathis — even the tight, quick vibrato is similar.

That ought to make the album's two duets more interesting than the usual singer-with-instrumental-obbligato arrangement, but the actual results are more of a mixed bag. ''That Somebody Was You,'' with Toni Braxton, is far more sultry than anything on her latest, Secrets. Braxton's brilliantly understated delivery not only says more with swallowed syllables than most singers convey at full voice but finds a perfect match in G's crisp countermelodies.

On the other hand, ''Everytime I Close My Eyes,'' which finds G going one-on-one with Babyface, is something of a mismatch. Granted, it's a great tune, but it's too focused on the vocal to make the sax man seem anything more than a sideman on yet another Babyface hit. No doubt it will sound great on the radio; here, though, it seems out of place, offering too much foreground for an album that — holy BarcaLounger! — elevates background music to a minor art form.

Originally posted Oct 18, 1996 Published in issue #349 Oct 18, 1996 Order article reprints