Cupid isn’t real, but you might be fooled by a certain 63-year-old saxophone player with long locks of curly brown hair and an affinity for custom-made suits. Every Valentine’s Day, that saxophone player—beloved by Kanye West, and the same one whose music you hear, well, everywhere—takes a gig. Not out of need for money or even for self-affirmation, mind you, but rather in the name of love. Out of the (correct) notion that if he pushes the right buttons on his instrument and the vibe is correct, he might just shoot an arrow through the hearts of some lucky lovers.
Which is how Kenny G (probably) wound up on the (hopefully) forthcoming Kanye West album. This past Valentine’s Day, duty took Cupid to the West-Kardashian household. The plan, hatched by Kanye, was to surprise serenade Kim with the sax-playing synonym of smooth himself. In a completely bare—sorry, minimal—white room, Kanye laid out a garden of roses in clear vases, like it was a conceptual exhibit at LACMA. In the middle of it all, there was a clear path, and at the end of it, Kenny G, his soprano, and an ethereal sensation.
The gig went well. Kim taped it, and posted the clip online with an ecstatic caption. For most of the video, the camera is trained on Kenny G, but you imagine that what’s happening behind the camera looks something like this. For a change, Kanye was in the news for something uncomplicatedly good and sweet (the only red in the room was the flowers). Spirits high, after the performance, Kanye took Kenny to his studio to play him some music he was working on… And that’s when Kenny G had an idea. "You know, I think if my saxophone was on there it would sound really good," he said. To which Kanye said, "Cool," pulled out a microphone, and let Kenny G do his thing. He noodled, took the record home and noodled on it some more, and sent it back to Kanye. The album, which has since transformed from Yandhi to Jesus Is King, remains a mystery to all but a few. But one thing does seem clear: Kenny G’s playing stuck. We spoke to the currently touring silky jazz maestro about the experience, what he knows of the album, and how collaborating with Kanye affected his own art.
GQ: I haven't heard the record yet. What can you tell me about it?
Kenny G: I haven't heard the final either. I know what I recorded. Basically, I've heard little snippets from people that put it out online. But I haven't heard the final song. I'm sure it's cool. What I heard from the little snippets people posted online sounded good.
So I know that you performed for Kim for Valentine's Day. What came next?
Well, that was the day that I met Kanye. And he just could not have been nicer. It was super fun. And it was a great vibe doing that performance in their house. The room was set up cool. And of course, as a saxophone player, if you're playing in a place that sounds like a cathedral, it's awesome. You know, we love stairwells, we love places that have high ceilings—gymnasiums, anything like that. An instrumentalist loves to practice because that sound goes everywhere. His living room was just like that, so it was really, really a pleasure for me to play. And the vibe was really cool.
And after that, he asked me if I want to come over to see his studio. So I said, "Cool." So I went with him. And he started playing me some tracks. And as he was playing the tracks, I did not hesitate to say what I thought about the tracks. And I suggested on a particular track, "You know, I think if my saxophone was on there it would sound really good." And he said, "Cool." And he pulled out the microphone, and I started playing on it.
And then, I wanted to put what I felt would be my best stuff on it, so I asked if I could take the track to my studio and just work on it in my little laboratory where I do all my stuff with my particular EQ and reverb and sounds that I like. And he said, "Fine." So I took the track home, and I played a bunch of stuff on it and gave it back to him. And then basically, he's got that and from there I think he's using what works in his mind for his arrangements. So I'm sure it's gonna be really cool.
You said that Kanye was really nice and really fun. How so?
Okay, well, I'm in his house, I've not met him, I'm kind of in a waiting room—I'm a surprise, so nobody wants me to be, you know, walking around the house in the kitchen making eggs when Kim comes downstairs. And then when Kanye walked in, he had a big smile on his face, he came over, gave me a big hug. We just started talking to each other, and it was very easy and casual. Some people you meet, it's not easy, whether they're celebrities or not celebrities: there's a vibe that doesn't make it easy for you to be yourself. But I felt like I was totally myself. I felt like he was being himself. So I immediately felt really comfortable, and I thought, "Oh, this is going to be really fun." I think people would be happy to know he's got a great vibe around him. When you're around him, there's just nothing but positive energy coming out of that guy. And that's really fun to be around.
In general, do you like Valentine's Day?
I do. I love Valentine's Day. I like it more now that I'm older. I feel like it's my duty to perform on Valentine's Day. So all the pressure of me having to really do anything romantic on Valentine's Day is pretty much off because I'm working. So I gotta go to work. I say that with a tongue in cheek, because I love my work. But I love Valentine's Day because usually gigs are offered, and I like to play gigs then so that I'm onstage helping people have a romantic Valentine's Day. It makes me feel great.
Did you feel that way for this one?
Oh, absolutely. I felt a couple of things. I felt very proud that somebody of Kanye's caliber, who probably could call anybody in the world be there, thought that I would be a person that he would want in this intimate vibe, serenading his wife. I felt proud that I was able to create a beautiful sound for that moment. And also, I felt very touched. It meant a lot to me to be there. It's not just me giving. I'm getting back when I see the smiles coming from those guys and the looks in their faces and the eye contact that we made while I was playing—there was a lot of love coming back to me from both Kanye and Kim. And that just made me feel really good.
So being that it was Valentine's Day, when you guys did go into the studio and when you started collaborating, were you kind of in a romantic mindset?
Not at all. No, not at that point. Once we left his house, and we were in the studio, I was just listening to the music. I wasn't thinking that it was still Valentine's Day.
And then, you know, after I left the studio, I had about a million messages on my phone about it because everybody saw it on social media. And then I get a call from James Corden’s show, that they want me to come out to the show and do what I did backstage for their guests. And I'm thinking, "Wow, that was so fast!" I wasn't really going to do it, but one of the guests was Ray Romano, and Ray's a very good friend of mine. And so I thought, "Because Ray's back there, I know it's going to be super funny me serenading him." So I decided for that reason to go down and do it. And I'm glad that I did. It was a really fun moment.
What were you responding to in the one track that you singled out? Why did you think that your playing would be good on that track?
I think my playing would be good on everybody's track, on every record that's ever been made. So that's not a big stretch for me to say my playing would be good on that.
But you said it for one and not for all of them.
I did. On the song that I think I'm on, he had this line that he was singing that just sounded really—I like the word anthematic [ed. note: he means anthemic, we think]. I don't know if he would use that word.
But my stuff's all instinctual. So if I hear something that I think that I can relate to, I'm going to say something, and that particular line that he was singing there, I related to that. And fortunately, it was in a really good key for my soprano.
What was the line?
Well I'm not gonna sing it to you. I don't know what ended up on the record.
But I was just really impressed that he was super open to that. That's why I think he's really so creative. He seems open to trying stuff. Like, here I am just walking in out of the blue, never heard this stuff before, I give him a suggestion. Who would really care what I think? But he did care, obviously. I like that, because that's the way I am with my music. I'm open to ideas, and I try stuff, because you don't know what it's gonna sound like until you actually put it down there and listen back.
Once you did give him some recordings, did he give you any notes? Or was there any kind of a back and forth?
Not really, no. He was just kind of letting me do my thing.
This album is apparently based in gospel and is very religious. Are you religious at all?
I'm not super religious in the traditional sense, in that sense of going to synagogue or a church. I don't really do that on a regular basis. But I would say that I'm spiritual in the sense of when I play my music, I know that there's more to what I do than just a saxophone that's made out of metal and my fingers that are playing it. I know that there's inspiration, and there's something coming out of nowhere that creates beautiful melodies and exciting music.
Do you have any kind of a relationship with gospel music?
No, not really. I mean, I didn't grow up with gospel music. I grew up with R&B music. And I guess there's some similarities there. Everybody knows Al Green and his music. Of course, I heard that growing up a ton. But I appreciate gospel music. There's a family called the Wynans that do really good gospel music, and we've been friends for like 20 or 30 years, and I played some sax on some of their music. I can feel gospel music. So I think that's one reason that he maybe liked my sound on this, because you can tell what I'm bringing to the table. You know, you can't fake feeling music.
Do you remember what you were feeling in that moment?
When I play my sax, it's just connecting and there's no real conscious thoughts about it. It's just, honestly, instinct. I can tell when I'm on. I can tell when magic is happening. I can tell that this is sounding great—at least to me. And then I just go with it. And that's, I think, one reason that I've had a long and successful career. I think people can feel it. It touches people when an artist is really in touch with what they're doing and that they’re feeling it, and not doing any calculated moves to try to be popular.
Prior to that day, did you have any notion that you would want to collaborate with Kanye?
You know, honestly, yes. And not just Kanye. I mean, I thought about him before when I've heard his music. I thought, "You know, that'd be a pretty good place for a sax solo. But I think about a lot of people's music. When I hear Paul McCartney, I'm thinking, "I wish Paul McCartney would call me." Because I could put a really beautiful piece of saxophone right there that he's probably not going to get from anybody else. I think my particular sax playing can fit into a lot of different kinds of music.
You've worked with Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion, Andrea Bocelli, all these different amazing artists. Were there any significant differences collaborating with Kanye?
I think one of the differences was that usually when somebody wants me to collaborate, they already have a song in mind. They already have a place in mind. So you get some direction, and you usually get a track. But with Kanye, it was really organic. I mean, I think this is the first time that's happened like that. I mean, he wasn't bringing me in, I don't think, expecting me to do anything. I think that we just had such a good vibe going from the Valentine's Day moment that he was excited to play me his music. To me, it was really refreshing. It was so creative because it was organically happening. There was no preconceived idea about anything. I liked that because it was really like the epitome of the creative process was happening right there. Two people from entirely different worlds coming together and music, and making us friends and collaborators.
I've heard several different artists who have collaborated with Kanye say afterwards that doing so changed what they wanted to do with their own music in certain ways. Was there any way that working with him rubbed off on you and made you think about something a little bit differently?
What it did is it really reinforced my idea of the creative process. You don't have to know what you're doing, or what you want to do going into it. You just have to kind of let things happen.
Well, it's been really great to talk to you. Thanks so much.
I'm a little disappointed that you didn't ask me what I was wearing in the studio. This is GQ, you know.
What were you wearing in the studio?
You might be interested to know that I had a really nice custom made suit on. I'm super skinny. I would like to use the word fit. I have to have my clothes made because I can't ever find anything off the rack that fits me. It's all too big. So I have this really nice suit, it fits me really nice, and I wanted to look super super sharp for their Valentine's Day.
Do you feel like what you wear impacts how you play?
I like to look super dressed up for my shows. I feel like the audience would expect to see a performer looking really great. So does it affect how I play? Sometimes, on certain songs, if I button my suit up and I feel that tightness of the suit against me because it fits me really good, sometimes it will make me play a little bit more strongly because I can actually feel the suit pushing against my body. I don't know if it makes it better or worse.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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Originally Appeared on GQ